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I was pretty skeptical about President Obama’s photo-op last month at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.

It wasn’t a prison visit per se as Obama didn’t stroll a functioning cellblock, but instead bizarrely peered into an empty cell before his 5-minute address to the press. Obama and his handlers secured the requisite visuals to help hammer home their commitment to national debate, and to leading that debate. Well-orchestrated business as usual for the White House, then.

The most interesting thing that happened that day was the forum Obama held with some hand-picked prisoners about their lot, our lot and (I presume) the need to fix so, so many things in our prisons.

The meet was filmed by HBO and VICE. The trailer is out.

There’s been a ban on film crews in federal facilities since 1995. I know of only one exception to the ban when a production company was granted access to a federal facility in Florida earlier this year. If anyone was going to buck the trend, the President of the United States was a likely candidate. I look forward to seeing the final product.

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Yesterday, I included an existing Medium story, by Peter Schafer, in the Vantage publication. Diary of a Sex Tourist is a very unusual account. Firstly, a man is speaking frankly about his use of sex workers in the Dominican Republic. Secondly, the man is a photographer who chose to pay for services in order that he could get closer and, by his appraisal, make better images. Thirdly, the work ends up focusing not so much on the sex industry as a whole but on private moments between Schafer and D_____ throughout their three year association.

It’s very unusual not because these things don’t happen but because these things are rarely admitted to or spoken of in public.

The images exist between amateur modeling, devotional portraits, candid shots, reportage, phone snaps and voyeurism. They are many things at once just as Schafer’s position on his work and the issue of sex-work is generally. The piece ends with advocacy. Yes, advocacy. Of sorts. Schafer calls supports the Global Network of Sex Work Projects‘ call to Amnesty International to support a move to decriminalise all sex work. They’ve launched a petition which (at the time of writing this) has 8,000+ signatures. It reaches far further than previous moves to decriminalise sex work.

Schafer believes the change will empower women. Many leading female celebrities who have figure-headed campaigns for women’s rights oppose the petition, but Schafer fairly notes that the recommendations to Amnesty International were made based upon feedback provided by sex-workers themselves. Molly Smith writing for the Guardian asks that Amnesty International not be bullied out of acting upon its own findings by Meryl Streep and others.

Asking women who work in the sex trade about the laws that are required to protect them most seems like good policy making.

Opponents to wider decriminalisation, that this petition proposes, worry that it will merely shield pimps and abusive men from the law and not improve women’s lives significantly. Streep, Steinem, Winslett et al. want to maintain the Nordic model of decriminalisation as the policy for worldwide progressive standards. “Legalisation keeps pimps, brothel keepers, and sex-slavers in freedom and riches. Criminalisation puts the prostituted in prison […] What works is the ‘third way’, the Nordic model, which offers services and alternatives to prostituted people, and fines buyers and educates them to the realities of the global sex trade,” says Steinem.

Smith and other supporters of widening decriminalisation, say the Nordic model–also known as the Swedish model–has serious problems. The Nordic model decriminalises the selling and keeps the buying as an offense, but it is applied inconsistently in some cases used by police against vulnerable migrant sex-workers.

The Nordic model also strips the sex-worker of agency. It assumes that all clients are enacting a type of male violence. So, the model is designed to slowly counter that, reduce demand and eradicate the sex trade. Schafer on the other hand believes that paid sex can be an equal exchange, a loving exchange and even part of friendship.

Ultimately, where you stand comes down to what type of interactions you think characterise the sex-industry most and which ones should be protected by, and combatted by, law enforcement. Currently we’re on the lefthand-side of this 4-bit chart. Most pliticans are reluctant to venture toward the righthand side.

Criminalisation / Decriminalisation / Wider decriminalisation / Full legalisation

If you feel that all, or nearly all, interactions between women and male clients and pimps are coercive and abusive, decriminalisation can still break and discourage those interactions. The criminalisation of sex-work (still very common) targets male clients and pimps the same, but has proven very unsafe for female sex workers.

I don’t know what the answers are. I do know that there are many women and men who make good and safe livings from sex work. Equally, there are many, many women who are coerced into sex-work and “trafficked” quickly becomes the best term to describe their circumstance. But even then those two simple binaries are not a reliable reflection of matters. In Schafer’s case, it doesn’t seem like there is a pimp involved in his exchanges with D____. She seems in control. That said, D____’s voice, except a couple of paraphrases by Schafer, is absent. In the pictures, D____’s bottom features in a disproportionate number of the pictures.

In places that have decriminalised sex-work, they’ve done so by putting in place legal qualifiers, paperwork and parameters of operation. These things have been found to obstruct safe practice of safe sex-work. Molly Smith writing for the New Republic notes that New Zealand is an example to follow and has been extensively praised by the U.N. for its removal of bureaucracy and an approach that forefronts women’s safety and access to services. “The director of the U.N. Development Programme’s HIV, Health and Development Practice observed, in accidentally amusing phrasing, “I would like to be a sex worker in New Zealand“,” recounts Smith.

Clearly, there is a debate to be had. I’d like to see that debate led by the sex-workers themselves, but given how marginalised they are it seems unlikely. I know I’ll be following the thoughts of Molly Smith from here on out.

One final thing, I cannot talk about sex-work, without mentioning Red Light Dark Room; Sex, Lives & Stereotypes, a stellar photography and book project by Gemma Rose Turnbull.

Turnbull, during a residency with non-profit organisation St Kilda Gatehouse, taught, photographed and interviewed street sex workers. Red Light Dark Room is a collaborative, frank look at sidelined and denied lives by those who live them. Importantly, the work doesn’t victimise, or claim to save, or preach; it describes and lays out the details for audiences to find connection.

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Toe Tag Parole premiers Monday, August 3rd at 9pm on HBO.

A: When it is a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence.

While criminal justice reformers, D.C. politicos, President Obama and the like are pressing for change they all too often focus on arguments for the release of non-violent (usually drug) offenders. Releasing that “category” of prisoner though doesn’t deal adequately with mass incarceration or prison overcrowding. We need, as a society, to look at how we treat those who are imprisoned for the longest sentences, how they got their and what we can do as a community to scale back on the vengeance and violence inherent to the prison system.

A literal life sentence is commonly referred to as Life Without Parole or LWOP. Activists tend to use the term Death By Incarceration.

In all other circumstances, parole is a complex and varied thing, but when the possibility of parole is removed it’s far simpler … and more brutal.

On HBO on Monday, there’s a documentary Toe Tag Parole: To Live and Die on the Yard, by Oscar-winning filmmakers 
Alan and Susan Raymond about LWOP.

To tell the story of LWOP, the Raymonds found an unusual facility in Los Angeles County, a maximum-security facility in the Mojave Desert. Yard A at California State Prison is the The Progressive Programming Facility — a space that committed LWOP prisoners and the California Department of Corrections forged together. With laws and sentences unlikely to change for those who are deemed the most dangerous, the “most dangerous” went about finding their own solutions.

Yard A — which inmates call The Honor Yard — is a prison yard is free of violence, racial tensions, gang activity and illegal drug and alcohol use. It’s the only type of its kind in the nation. 600 men living in The Progressive Programming Facility and seek self-improvement and spiritual growth through education, art and music therapy, religious services and participation in peer-group sessions.

The press release reads:

Ken Hartman, who beat a man to death at age 19 while drunk, and has been in prison for 36 years, says, “There’s a progression that these things go through. People used to be stoned to death and then they were shot and then they were hung, they were electrocuted. Each step along the way always the argument is made that this is a better kind of death penalty. I’m sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole. It’s not better than the death sentence, because it is the death sentence.”

It promises to be a wonderful film. In an ideal world though, extraordinary efforts by men inside wouldn’t be needed because many of them would be offered the opportunity for improvement and release by the structures of the state.

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Verint Israel and NICE System Monitoring Center, Astana, Kazakhstan 2014.

Much of my weekend was spent putting a final editing-touches on the latest Vantage article Panopticon For Sale. The piece, details trade between authoritarian regimes (such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and others) and corporations that manufacture and maintain cyber-surveillance.

The author, Mari Bastashevski, spent 12 months researching this shady industry —  trailing paper work, filing FOIA requests, interviewing and protecting sources, and corroborating statements. Many previously unreported (but commonly suspected) business relations uncovered by Bastashevski have been confirmed by information included in the July 5th hack of Hacking Team (a company that manufactures surveillance technologies) when the identities of its clients were posted online.

As Bastashevski writes in her closing statements:

Companies like NICE, Gamma Group, Verint, and Hacking Team, who sell this power to governments for which “watched a YouTube protests video” constitutes criminal behaviour become co-arbiters of what is and isn’t a “wrong act”. Yet for the companies, much like for their clients, their own secrecy remains absolute and proprietary: not something for press consumption, researchers, or advocates.

Private corporations are facilitating the unfettered surveillance of citizens by paranoid rulers.

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NICE Systems HQ, Ra’anana, Israel 2014.

The comparatively unregulated republics in the post-Soviet region are proving grounds for the shit that the power hungry can get away with.

I’ll stop yelling now, encourage you to read Bastashevski’s #longread, and leave you with an my editor’s foreword to further convince you to take in Bastashevki’s text and images.

This is a narrative built upon information that’s incredibly difficult to verify. Outside of the community of privacy advocates and cyber-surveillance researchers, no-one really saw this story, or necessarily knew what it was or why it mattered. That’s because everything that Bastashevski was looking at — or looking for — is invisible, confidential or both.

When Hacking Team was itself hacked, Bastashevski felt vindicated. Not only did the hack confirm the presence of Hacking Team in countries she investigated, it also confirmed the presence of other companies she knew were providing surveillance to those countries. The lies and questionable dealings of a catastrophic industry were laid bare.

“To photograph or to look at what exists on the verge of catastrophe,” critic Ariella Azoulay once wrote, “the photographer must first assume she has a reason to be in the place of the nonevent or event that never was, which no one has designated as the arena of an event in any meaningful way. She, or those who dispatch her, must suspend the concerns of the owners of the mass media regarding the ratings of the finished product and with her camera begin to sketch a new outline capable of framing the nonevent. Photographing what exists the verge of catastrophe thus is an act that suspends the logic of newsworthiness.”

By virtue of hackers’ actions, and not the logic of the news industry, I find myself in a position to publish Bastashevski’s remarkable findings. A condensed version of this work was exhibited at Musee de Elysee and published in the Prix Elysee catalogue (Musee de Elysee, December 2014). It has since been expanded to include a review of targets and surveillance in Azerbaijan, and cross references of the recent evidence obtained through Hacking Team leak.

This is not a photo essay but rather an essay with photos. Bastashevki makes photographs, in many ways, to show her stories cannot be photographed. These images are way-markers along roads of discovery.

Read the full piece Panopticon For Sale and see more large images.

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Ministry of Communication Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 2014.

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SNB lunch spot, secure Gazalkent district, Tashkent Uzbekistan. 2014.

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Monitoring centre (roof) -Tashkent, Uzbekistan. 2014. Location where data obtained with Hacking Team, Nice Systems, and Verint Technologies is analysed and processed.

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PU-data collection point Kazakhtelecom-Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2014.

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Presidential Palace and MNS HQ, Baku, Azerbaijan 2013.

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Inside Verint Israel HQ, Herzliya Pituach, Israel 2014.

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Transaction — Dedeman Silk Road Radisson Blu, Tashkent ,Uzbekistan. 2014.

All images: Mari Bastashevski

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A small, unbreakable tin wall mirror in a solitary cell. Reflection is of a slatted window. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for New York Magazine.

The suicide of Kalief Browder was the latest, most tragic reminder of how much of a hell hole Rikers Island is. It was the combined effects of broken bail and juvenile prison systems that killed Kalief.

Take your pick of the coverage from The Guardian and the New York Times, to New York Magazine. What has been consistent in the coverage of Rikers as information about conditions and treatment is that visuals have been limited and it has relied on the progression of lawsuits and news FOIA requests. Whistleblowers have been few and far between and prisoners’ testimonies are notoriously difficult to verify.

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An August 2013 fight in the George R. Vierno Center, caught on surveillance tape.

That makes the recent feature Rikers Island, Population 9,790, a joint effort between The Marshall Project and New York Magazine noteworthy. In the expansive effort involving more than half a dozen journalists, we hear from a couple who both went to Rikers in the same year (she was pregnant); a teacher on Rikers; a couple of recent prisoners; an officer, the commissioner of the department of corrections; a girlfriend of a slain prisoner; a former volunteer-librarian; various visitors; a mental health professional; and others.

The selection of imagery (as well as an overview map) is one of the most diverse visual presentations of Rikers that I have seen online. It includes Ashley Gilbertson‘s straight shots from common areas, wings and solitary cells, Ruth Fremson‘s work from the kitchen, surveillance video stills, photos of prisoners by Clara Vannucci and Julie Jacobson, Instagram images found under the hashtag #Rikers, environmental studies by Librado Romero, and archival photos by my friend and former correctional officer Lorenzo Steele Jr.

Bravo to the photo editors of The Marshall Project and New York Magazine.

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The recreation center at the bing. Photo: Officer Lorenzo Steele Jr.

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Contraband, including jail-made weapons and drugs. Photo: New York City Department of Correction via AP.

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The view from Instagram, #Rikers: Clockwise from left: The bridge to Rikers; bathroom graffiti inside the vistors center; the new maximum-security wing; the entrace to a chapel; a correction officer at an adolescent unit; an exercise and recreation area. Photo: Kelsey Jorgenson/Edgar Sandoval/JB Nicholas/Bryan R. Smith/JR/Gee Force.

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Prisoners at “Rosie’s” the women’s unit. Photo: Clara Vannucci.

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Inside a solitary-confinement cell. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for New York Magazine.

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I was interviewed by ACLU recently: Prisons Are Man-Made … They Can Be Unmade.

The Q&A focuses around the exhibition Prison Obscura and you’ll notice a return to many of my favourite talking points. Still, the work never ends, and I know that ACLU will push out — to an expanded audience — my argument that we should all be more active and conscientious consumers of prison imagery. My thanks to Matthew Harwood for the questions.

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Photo: Meghann Riepenhoff

I’m one of five jurors for this years annual juried show at SF Camerawork. Y’all should enter. Here’s the blurb …

CALL FOR ENTRIES: HEAT

This summer, SF Camerawork teams up with LensCulture to host our Annual Juried Exhibition. The theme this year is HEAT.

HEAT registers the volatility and restlessness that comes with long hot summers: violent crime rates increase, leases expire and people seek new homes, global weather changes signal an alarm, and warm summer days bring adults and children alike into the streets, parks, and beaches.

SF Camerawork invites artists to submit work that responds to HEAT: the social, political, and climatic conditions of rapidly changing environments. Following the lead of social and political advocates around the world, SF Camerawork asks artists working at all levels in photography to participate.

Art is politics. Particularly in the realistic forms of photography and filmmaking, what gets assigned, shown or sold reflects political considerations. […] Politics is in the air. All you need to do to get the message is breathe. – Danny Lyon.

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Photo: David Butow

DETAILS

Deadline: Monday, June 15, 2015, 5pm PST.
Notification: Finalists will be contacted on July 1st.
Exhibition Dates: July 23 – August 22, 2015.
Opening Reception: Thursday, July 23, 6-8pm.
Application Fee: $50 application fee for up to 15 images.

ENTER NOW ON LENSCULTURE AND CREATE AN ACCOUNT TO UPLOAD YOUR APPLICATION

AWARDS/BENEFITS

EXHIBITION AT SF CAMERAWORK: 2-5 finalists will have a 4-week exhibition at SF Camerawork.
LIVE ONLINE REVIEW SESSION: Finalists will receive a one-on-one review with a juror through this innovative platform hosted by LensCulture.
20 JUROR SELECTIONS FEATURED: 20 juror selections will be exhibited on interactive screens at SF Camerawork as part of the exhibition.
FEATURE ARTICLE ON LENSCULTURE: Finalists will be featured in an article on LensCulture.
ONE YEAR MEMBERSHIP: All entrants will receive a one-year membership to SF Camerawork.

HEAT 2015 JURY

Pete Brook, Writer and Curator, Founder: Prison Photography
Jim Casper, Editor and Publisher, LensCulture
Seth Curcio, Associate Director, Pier 24 Photography
Janet Delaney, Artist and Educator
Heather Snider, Executive Director, SF Camerawork

QUESTIONS?

Please email info@sfcamerawork with “Call for Entries” in the subject line.

SF CAMERAWORK

Founded in 1974, SF Camerawork‘s mission is to encourage and support emerging artists to explore new directions and ideas in the photographic arts. Through exhibitions, publications, and educational programs, we strive to create an engaging platform for artistic exploration as well as community involvement and inquiry.

SF Camerawork is a membership-based organization.

http://www.sfcamerawork.org

1011 Market St., 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94103
Gallery hours: 12:00 – 6:00 pm
Tuesday – Saturday (also by appointment)
415.487.1011

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Photo: McNair Evans

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THE WHAT

If you’re in New York this Thursday and can spare the time, please think about joining four photo practitioners and I for Everyday Incarceration – Visualizing the Legacy of Mass Incarceration, a panel discussion about images of prisons and the associated social issues. We’ll be tackling the core question: Who gets to tell the story of a locked up nation?

THE LINE UP

Zara Katz and the Department of Visual Journalism at the CUNY J-School have done a great job of putting together a panel with diverse perspectives and practices – one documentary storyteller using video; one photographer who’s eye on the issues stretches back decades; one lawyer using software code and images to engage audiences and empower prisoners; and one former correctional officer turned campaigner armed with his photos from the job. Check the bios below!

THE PORTRAIT STUDIO

After the panel, we invite you to sit for a portrait and to tell us your experience with incarceration. The photos will appear on @EverydayIncarceration, a collaborative Instagram feed.

THE DETAILS

The panel takes place in Room 308 of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, at 219 W. 40th Street, NY 10018.

6:30-9:30pm on Thursday, May 14th.

The event is free but an RSVP is very appreciated. Do that at – cunyphotowire@journalism.cuny.edu or at the event page on the Facebook.

THE PANELISTS

Gabriela-Bulisova

Lashonia Etheridge-Bay, a 39 year-old woman who was granted parole in 2011 after spending 18 years in prison. Bulisova’s series Time Zone follows Etheridge-Bay’s return to society. Photo: Gabriela Bulisova.

Gabriela Bulisova is a documentary photographer and multimedia artist based in Washington, D.C. Over the past five years, she focused her attention on underreported and overlooked stories regarding incarceration and reentry, especially the impact on families. Bulisova has received numerous recognitions and awards, including The National Press Photographers Association’s Short Grant and Open Society Institute’s Moving Walls 18. In 2005, she was awarded the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Photography and Digital Imaging from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in photojournalism at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design in Washington D.C. and is a member of Women Photojournalists of Washington.

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Michael is 17 and has ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder. He is on Ritalin.  He is under house arrest and wears an electronic monitoring device. He was arrested for possession of a knife and violating probation.  He is living in a hotel room with the rest of his family, 7 people in total. San Jose, California 1999. Photo: Joseph Rodriguez.

Joseph Rodriguez was born and raised in Brooklyn. His four-decade photography career examines incarceration, gangs, police and reentry, as well as families, communities and cultures across the globe. After being incarcerated at Rikers Island as a minor in the late-60s, Rodriguez turned to photography as a guide in his life. In 1985 he graduated from the International Center of Photography in New York. He went on to work for Black Star photo agency, and has published work in multiple top-tier outlets including National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine. He has received numerous awards and grants including New York Foundation for the Arts, Open Society Institute, National Endowment for the Arts, to name a few. Rodriguez currently teaches at New York University and as a visiting artist at national and international universities.

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Photo: Lorenzo Steele.

Lorenzo Steele Jr. is a former New York City Correction officer (1987-1999) who mostly worked in the juvenile units at Rikers Island. He was regularly the photographer at events and celebrations with his fellow officers. In 1996, Steele began bringing his camera to the prison to document his experience there. That included daily violence and abuse of inmates and correctional officers. The deep emotional and physiological impact of his experience at Rikers compelled Steele to start a visual arts education program where he shares his photographs and prison experience with middle school and high school students.

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Image courtesy of Nikki Zeichner/Growing Up Through Pictures

Nikki Zeichner began exploring multimedia storytelling with the Museum of the American Prison, a project that she initiated in 2012 to offer mainstream audiences a way to understand personal and experiential details of incarceration in the U.S. Her interest in telling stories about incarceration grew out of her experiences working as a criminal defense attorney in New York City and regularly visiting with clients held in federal and state pretrial detention facilities in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Nikki recently completed a Master’s degree in Integrated Digital Media from NYU’s Engineering School and is spending 2015 in San Francisco designing civic tech tools for a small, post-bankrupt municipality in Northern California. She remains in regular contact with the incarcerated individuals she worked with creatively on museum projects.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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