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“By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”
— Albert Camus.
Photographer Tomas Van Houtryve puts the above quote top and center of his most recent artist statement. He believes that human activity becomes increasingly absurd and dangerous when it loses empathy.
Researching my latest WIRED piece Here’s What Drone Attacks in America Would Look Like about Van Houtryve’s Blue Sky Days, I was shocked by the number of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
“The Obama administration doesn’t release a lot of details, so firm figures are hard to come by. But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates unmanned aerial vehicles have killed between 2,296 and 3,718 people, as many as 957 of them civilians,” I wrote.
President Obama’s Drone War is not widely discussed. Drones operate remotely and forge the very distance that prevents a critical look at their continued use. Drones dismantle empathy.
If a technology with extremely powerful spying and killing capabilities is shielded from public scrutiny there is bound to be abuse,” says Van Houtryve.
WHAT’S IN OUR WORLD?
Art can foster empathy. At least, that’s an aim of political art, no? There are many worthy projects that have co-opted and subverted drone visuals:
Jamie Bridle traces drone shadows in the streets and launched Dronestagram to populate social media with satellite views of drone strike sites; John Vigg surveilled drone research labs and airports; Trevor Paglen photographed drones at distance; Josh Begley’s App MetaData alerts users to drone strikes; and Raphaella Dallaporte took a drone to Afghanistan to do some archaeological surveying.
Most recently, a JR-inspired Inside Out project named Not A Bug Splat is tweaking the consciences of drone “pilots” by laying massive pictures of children in strike zones. However, the novelty (still) of these projects suggests we are not well-versed in drone operations.
WHAT’S IN A WORD?
Furthermore, I worry about how the definition of the word “drone” is shifting. When we hear “drone” do we think about military-grade killer robots or about newer domestic-use quadcopters?
The photo and video world has embraced smaller, non-lethal drones — we oohed and aahed at this aerial surf video and we protested when the police forced down a drone flown over a traffic accident by an off-duty photojournalist.
Soon, a small drone will be a part of every photographers kit.
Also, new legislation is being written to catch up with the technology and the proliferation of public drone ownership and operation. The FAA had self-appointed itself as the authority on drone use and looked disapprovingly at Joe Public sending lil’ aircraft up in the air. So, the FAA started sending out cease and desist letters and $10,000 fine threats.
The recipients — commercial photographers — weren’t threatening homeland security; they were mostly using camera-mounted drones to map agriculture, oil fields and the like. One commercial drone user, Raphael Pirker, challenged his fine in court. He won and nullified the FAA’s authority over him or any other drone operator.
“Pirker’s attorney maintained that the FAA could not simply declare a regulation without having a public notice-and-comment period. His argument went like this: Congress has delegated to its bureaucracy the authority to make rules, but when new regulations have a substantial impact on the general public, the government must have hearings and take comments,” wrote David Kravets for WIRED.
Until those hearings, it is a free-for-all. We must just hope that creepy idiots who want to spy through windows are the exception.
There’s a third player in the mix though. Between the everyday citizen and the military industrial complex are corporations. Who would bet against Amazon actually delivering your slippers by drone? Or Facebook delivering WiFi via drones to the entire globe in the next decade?
Overall, we hope that citizens retain access to the use of drones just as corporations and the state do. We hope citizens’ drone use is protected by laws similar to those allowing street photography on public thoroughfares.
NEW WORDS IN OUR WORLD
‘Drone’ is a new word in photography. ‘Selfie’ is a new word in photography too. In fact, the emergence of the two words was almost parallel.
The earliest usage of the word selfie can be traced to an ABC Online Australian internet forum, on 13 September 2002. Just seven weeks later, on November 3rd 2002, the first ever lethal U.S. drone strike hit Yemen, killing six.
At the turn of the millennium neither the words drone or selfie, as we know understand them, were in our lexicon. I’d argue the definition of both terms is ongoing apace, but for different reasons. Drone visuals and facts are obscured; we must search them out. Selfie visuals, on the other hand, are impossible to avoid.
At some level, the selfie provides the everyday citizen a type of agency and incorporates our foibles, connectedness, and our awkward relationships with social media. Selfies may not be inherently humanizing but they are individually created and do reflect human idiosyncrasy.
By comparison, drone scopes reduce humans to video-mediated targets. Drone visuals eradicate individuality and of course, very literally snuff out human life. The selfie is, spoken of at least, as a completely controllable form, whereas the drone is an apparatus of control. It’s bottom-up liberation vs. top-down oppression.
The drone and the selfie inhabit different ends of an image spectrum. Both in terms of production and consumption, the selfie is all us and the drone is all them. We know us well. We don’t know them at all.
That these are two of the main new words we are processing together as a culture is intriguing to me.
These are just thoughts out loud and may or may not lead to more fleshed out criticism, but the near-simultaneous emergence and widespread use of the words “drone” and “selfie” alongside their contrasting correlation to human consciousness in our remotely-networked globe might provide fodder for further investigation.
Photo by Tigerbeat. Used without permission.
On Sunday 16th March, I spoke at the Bearing Witness photo symposium organised by SFMoMA. The video is now online. I haven’t watched it. My love of talking is matched by my fear of hearing myself talk. After the event people said nice things. I don’t think my frantic back-and-forth across the stage put too many people off. It was the largest crowd to which I’ve presented. If you think I’m out of breath for the first 5 minutes, it’s because I am. I sprinted around the back of the auditorium during Erin O’Toole’s introduction to ensure I was stage left and not stage right, or stage wrong.
I’d like to thank Erin for extending the invitation to speak. Big thanks to Malia Rose who coordinated many of the details and kept things sane.
When you click through on this link, my talk What Can Photography Do For Prison Reform? is at the beginning of ‘Session 2.’ Also in the line up are Margaret Olin, Susan Meiselas, Zoe Strauss, Ben Lowy and Kathy Ryan.
For 12 years every spring, women incarcerated at Estrella Jail in Maricopa County, Phoenix, AZ, have convened to create, prepare and perform a theatre production. The six-week program — that culminates in a public show — is called Journey Home.
Photographer Aaron Lavinsky, now based in Grays Harbor, WA, was in attendance for the finale 2012 performance and photographed it for The State Press — the Arizona State University (ASU) student paper. Not satisfied with only a single afternoon’s access, Lavinsky decided to return in 2013 to document rehearsals and to dig into the personal stories of two participants. It is Lavinsky’s photos from Feb/Mar 2013 presented here.
The Journey Home program adopts a different theme each year, but in every case attempts to “enable women to discover a personal sense of constructive identity through movement, visual arts, creative writing and storytelling.” Journey Home is made possible through efforts of committed instructors (in 2013 by storyteller Fatimah Halim; movement specialist Teniqua Broughton; psychotherapist Imani O. Muhammad; and others) and supported by sponsorship from the ASU Herberger Institute for Design ant the Arts.
Estrella Jail, under the administration of controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio presents itself as a case-study of contradiction for us if we are to be responsible consumers of images. Lavinsky’s pictures are hopeful but the carceral backdrop to them less so.
Arpaio has been pursued by the Federal authorities for unconstitutional jail conditions and racial profiling. Arpaio’s use of striped uniforms and pink underwear serves to both manipulate visual readings within the public sphere and to humiliate prisoners. If you need anymore convincing that Arpaio is a special case, look no further than his questioning of President Obama’s birth certificate (although it could just as easily be a calculated publicity stunt).
I’ve written before about how Arpaio’s jails may be the most photographed of any jails or prisons in the nation. His facilities are a media circus often.
Before we get into the Q&A with Lavinsky, I think it is worth us bearing in mind two things — 1. Journey Home is a laudable, but not necessarily typical program. I mean, what happens the other 46 weeks of the year for these women? And 2. All of these women are wearing uniforms branded UNSENTENCED. This means each woman is awaiting trial; in the eyes of the law, they are not guilty. It might also mean they are kept incarcerated because they can’t meet bail. Everyday, tens of thousands of people wallow behind bars because they are too poor to afford bail. I don’t know what proportion of Maricopa County prisoners are in such a penury situation as bail differs county to state; and judge to courtroom.
Instead of spending too much thought on Arpaio as overlord-to-one-of-America’s-most-shameful-systems-of-detention, I think it’s more responsible meditate on the successes of the women when viewing Lavinsky’s images. And, of course, to hear Lavinsky’s first hand observations.
Scroll down for the Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Why this story?
Aaron Lavinsky (AL): Journey Home presented enormous potential, but I wanted to go beyond the one-hour performance performed for the public. In 2013, I was interning for the Arizona Republic and looking for a story that could push my abilities as a visual journalist. I decided to cover Journey Home again, but with extended access. I visited back and forth for a month during classroom sessions, the performance, and then follow-ups with two women around whom the story was centered.
PP: Do theatre and dance workshops such as this occur regularly at Estrella jail?
AL: Not to my knowledge. Journey Home is an annual workshop and while there are other classes, they are more geared toward substance abuse counseling. I’m sure there are elements of creative expression but not on the same level as Journey Home.
PP: As this is a county jail, I anticipate these women were serving relatively shorter sentences. What sort of transgressions were these women locked up for?
AL: Most of the prisoners in the program were there for substance abuse related crimes, which is the case with most prisoners at Estrella. Some of them were serving short sentences while others were waiting for or in the midst of trials that could send them to prison. Both the prisoners I focused on, Renata F. and Robina S. were facing prison sentences of 1-3 years if convicted. Because of their pending trials, I was unable to publish their full names which was one of the stipulations of covering the program.
PP: I’m gripped by the wide smiles in your photos. The women seem to be in the midst of huge enjoyment and heartfelt emotion. Such animation is rare in prisons and jails and rarer still in photographs of prisoners.
AL: I think photographers, for most prison and jail stories, try to illustrate how rough incarceration can be for those inside. I’ve had to make “prisoner behind bars” type photos before for other assignments and they kind of all feel the same looking back. Journey Home is unique in that there is a genuine sense of happiness and camaraderie among the women. I imagine that jail is extremely stressful and Journey Home gave these women an opportunity to let their guard down and be people, not just prisoners.
PP: Did you meet Sheriff Joe Arpaio?
AL: I’ve met and photographed Sheriff Joe a number of times. There is definitely a cult of personality surrounding him in Phoenix and beyond. You see it right when you walk in to Estrella with a portrait of him hanging high on the wall — just out of reach to those hoping to deface it.
Last summer, I photographed Tent City’s 20th anniversary and the entire thing was a bit of a set up. As Arpaio spoke to the media, there were about 30 or 40 prisoners lined up behind him smiling and gesturing to the camera. He served prisoners cake, coffee, candy cigarettes as well as home living magazines with false Playboy and Hustler covers on them. He kind of just let photographers and videographers walk around and shoot whatever we wanted. Arpaio, however controversial he may be, is a smart guy and he knows that we’re on a 24-7 news cycle and if he invites us, we’ll probably show up.
I definitely knew exactly what I was going into whenever I stepped foot in the jails in Phoenix. That being said, certain programs like Journey Home and ALPHA, a drug prevention and counseling program, are genuinely there to help prisoners and aren’t just for the cameras.
PP: What were the women’s thoughts on the jail? How was it serving their rehabilitation, thinking, emotions, family life etc.?
AL: Jail is a rough experience for just about everyone there — prisoners and guards. Nobody I spoke with had particularly nice things to say about their experiences at Estrella. It separated them from their family, homes and freedom. I spoke with one woman in 2012 who was thankful for her incarceration, since she was on a downward spiral with alcoholism, but I got a sense that she was appreciative more of her forced separation from alcohol than with the jail’s rehabilitative resources.
The prisoners really did love the workers who came in to lead workshops like Journey Home. Fatimah, Teniqua and Imani were the leaders of the program and I have no doubt that they made positive, lasting influences in the lives of some of the women who were more engaged in the program.
PP: Was the Estrella Jail Rehabilitation through the Arts program successful?
AL: I think any program, which seeks to positively influence the lives of prisoners instead of simply punishing them, is on some level successful. Something isn’t working since there are more people in the system today then ever before. Any attempt to decrease the odds of people ending up back in jail or prison is a step in the right direction. One of the complaints I received though is that the program was only 6-weeks long. If it’s going on its 12th year, they must know that it’s successful. So why not extend the program for women who are showing positive signs? Or create other programs like it for the vast majority of prisoners who didn’t have the opportunity to take part?
PP: What were the women’s reactions to you and your camera?
AL: At first, there was a ton of camera awareness. Most people aren’t used to having their picture taken by a photojournalist so their first reaction is to smile for the camera. Some of the girls were a little flirty when I pointed the camera in their direction too. By the second day there, I was a complete fly on the wall and was able to move in close without getting stares and smiles in every photo. They seemed thankful that I was there telling their story and covering the program.
PP: What was the staff’s reaction to you and your camera?
AL: Highly professional. I had very good experiences with the staff at Estrella and they didn’t seem to mind me taking their photos one bit. The jail staff were barely interacting with the women when I was there working other than to transport them to and from the classroom we were all in. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do and respected my right to be there taking photos.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
AL: Having the opportunity to photograph and observe Journey Home was an eye opening experience. I’m thankful that I was able to document one of the positive initiatives that our penal system is pursuing toward helping prisoners so they don’t make the same mistakes again. I just wish that there were more programs like it and more options for prisoners other then being locked up for a pre-determined period of time, especially for drug offenses. I’ve had enough experience dealing with people with substance abuse issues to know it’s a disease, and should be treated like one to a reasonable degree. I don’t think anyone in there really wants to be addicted to meth or pills or alcohol. I wish the government did more to help people with drug problems instead of just locking them up. It’s not working.
PP: Thanks Aaron.
AL: Thank you, Pete.
Aaron Lavinsky is an visual journalist based in Grays Harbor, Washington. He is currently a staff photographer at The Daily World in Aberdeen and produces daily and long form photo and multimedia stories. Lavinsky’s work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The New York Times, National Geographic, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Denver Post, The Miami Herald, The San Francisco Chronicle and others. Find him on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter.
I never expected to make comment on the career of Miley Cyrus here on the blog, but then again, I never expected to come across the greatest sketch of Miley Cyrus ever made.
The drawing, titled Miley Twerking, was made by my friend Christian Nagler. It originally appeared in the Fall 2013 Issue of Actually People Quarterly (APQ), an indie print publication based in San Francisco. APQ and Nagler kindly provided permission to share the picture.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t see a thumbnail image of Miley Cyrus in the sidebar of some website. Collections of Cyrus-resembling pixels are ubiquitous. In terms of describing Miley-Cyrus-the-person, a photograph is almost meaningless. In terms of describing Miley Cyrus-the-product, a photograph is the perfect hype-spinning money-making tool.
The reason I like Nagler’s sketch so much is that skewers the ridiculous theatre of her MTV Awards twerking AND undermines the grotesque image-driven publicity machine that surrounds her. It lays bare what she is and discards the useless debate of who she is.
Cyrus is, as with all celebrities, almost unknowable. She is not a person, but a product. She is no longer a who, but a what. Photography when it encounters celebrity elevates and promotes the what. Photography may purport to depict the who, but it does not.
This is my reading and not necessarily Nagler’s intent. I think he is genuinely interested in Cyrus; perplexed by the who, the what, and the gap between.
“The reason I think Christian’s picture is amazing is because it leaves space left open,” says APQ founder and editor, Sarah Fontaine. “It doesn’t totally proscribe an opinion on her. There’s a level of investment. A drawing takes time but a photo takes an instant.”
If I could even know Cyrus, I don’t think I’d dislike her. Everyone wants to have an opinion about Cyrus’ conduct. Some think her various states of undress hinder the movement of our culture toward one of gender equality. Often Cyrus is the focus of vitriol and frustration, but perhaps we should be looking at society as a whole? I’ll defer to Gloria Steinem and suggest we hate the game, not the player.
“I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists,” said Steinem.
Photography upholds, forwards and fortifies the game. Nagler’s sketch respectfully questions the game. My thoughts on photographing Miley Cyrus? Don’t.
Kansas, MO and Brooklyn, NY based artist Jaimie Warren is the recipient of the 2014 Baum Award for an Emerging American Photographer. This is a curious selection for many reasons — all of them good.
Secondly, her work is wacky. The meanings of her images are elusive and you’ve got work hard with them. As many photographic artists do, Warren plays with ideas of fantasy, fun, performance and artifice, but she does so in much more aggressive, brazen way. These are not the cool, clinical images of studio assemblages we see from many young (MFA-bearing) image-makers.
I really, really enjoy Warren’s disfigured portraits and tableaus. They’re pop, they’re a bit grotesque, they cinch perfectly into the shock-visuals of audiences habituated to the Tumblr-driven flow of images. Warren’s work is Peewee Herman meets Carnivale meets that bonkers Halloween party you went to in 1997.
Thirdly, it is great to see an award go to a photographer who isn’t just a photographer. For all the intelligent image detournement in her work, Warren is not operating from a fine art ivory tower. Quite the opposite. Central to Warren’s work is constant collaboration with communities. Her main vehicle for making art is the non-profit community arts initiative Whoop Dee Doo.
Whoop Dee Doo works with communities “to create unique and memorable events that challenge the everyday art venue or community event.” Everything from concept to end product is intended to fit the needs of host communities, and all acts are “truly inclusive endeavors that celebrate differences and unabashed self-expression.”
Probably the best and quickest way to get a handle on the art and performances is to view the Whoop Dee Doo Vimeo Channel.
Whoop Dee Doo has worked with youth programs including Caldera Arts (Portland/Sisters, OR), Operation Breakthrough (Kansas City), the Boys & Girls Club (Kansas City), Big Brother/Big Sister (Kansas City), Girls, Inc. (Omaha, NE), Experimental Station’s Blackstone Bicycle youth Program (Chicago, IL), Urgent, Inc. and the Rites of Passage Program (Miami, FL), Muse 360 and 901 arts (Baltimore, MD), as well as college interns at the University of Central Missouri, Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Kansas City Art Institute, the University of Chicago, Maryland Institute College of Art, Rockhurst University, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Jaimie Warren, Self-portrait as Bulls fan in La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau/Michael Jordan basketball painting by dosysod of the Independents, 2012.
Jaimie Warren, Self-portrait as Nun with some of my Mother’s Favorite Famous People in the Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs of the Fiesole San Domenico Altarpiece by Fra Angelic, 2014.
From looking over the portfolios, I reckon the folky-rainbow-eclecticism of Warren and her collaborators’ work reflects something close to common feeling. What else could there by except fun, wild variance and complexity when the hands of dozens go into making something?
Breaking down stereotypes and barriers between age, gender, culture and sub-culture is one of Whoop Dee Doo‘s main objectives. The group is open to designing performances and workshops “between unlikely pairings of community members that ultimately blossom into exceptional and meaningful interactions.”
A lot of the time, the use and outcomes of awards can be hard to pin down, but I can’t imagine it’ll be too long before Warren is putting the $10,000 to use making more happenings with communities. Because she always has. Let the merriment continue.
The Baum Award for An Emerging American Photographer is a project established out of the conviction that photography is a powerfully influential medium with the capacity to emotionally connect with audiences in ways that words cannot. This ability to reach people on a visceral level can transform awareness to understanding and lead interest into action – fundamental aspects of a healthy and vital society.
Click here to see previous Baum Award winners.
The kind folks at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College wanted to make a video to accompany Prison Obscura. So, we sat down with camera and I talked for an hour. It’s a blessed relief for you all that they managed to distill it down to 3 minutes. Much more bite-size than the essay.
Photo Exhibit Offers Look Into the Lives of Prisoners (Philadelphia Inquirer)
Prison Obscura: A Look Into the Cell of Self (Bi-College News)
Prison Obscura at Haverford’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery (The Art Blog)
Shedding Light on a Dim Situation in Prison Systems (The Temple News)
5 Intriguing Things: Thursday, 1/23 (The Atlantic)
‘Lives Lived Behind Bars are Too Often Invisible’ (In These Times)
Prison Obscura, Curated by Pete Brook (aCurator)
Exhibition: Prison Obscura (No Caption Needed)
Okay, the title to this post makes it sound like I’ll be making a habit of recording these stories of abuse. I will not. That isn’t because these episodes aren’t regular (unfortunately, they are quite regular), it is because I don’t have the time most weeks to adequately collect the many stories of misconduct from across this America.
So, why this week? Well, I came across two particularly disgusting and glaring examples of abuse. In both cases, they are presented with great clarity. The first is courtroom video footage. The second is a diaristic, written account.
Above, we see a video from September 2012, in which Denver Sheriff Deputy Brad Lovingier slams a handcuffed prisoner into wall. Face first. Totally unprovoked.
Following the judge’s ruling, the defendant Anthony Waller requested clarification. At which point he is grabbed, from behind, by the handcuffs secured by behind his back, spun around, and flung into the wall. Waller falls to his knees after the impact and is then dragged out of the courtroom and into a holding cell. In the video Lovingier can be heard saying, “You don’t turn on me,” as the only explanation for his actions.
Madness. Ordinarily, a citizen guilty of such an assault would face a 6-month jail term. Lovingier was suspended for 30 days. And he’s appealing that.
SOLITARY CELL FOR GOOD SAMARITAN
The story is as simple as its logic is baffling and its behaviours are brutal.
Man witnesses a bike accident. Calls 9-1-1. Is handcuffed by police for unknown reasons. Taken to jail. Asks legitimate questions. Faces retribution from deputies. Stripped. Thrown in a shit-stained solitary cell.
You just have to read it to believe it: Good Samaritan Backfire or How I Ended Up in Solitary After Calling 911 for Help.
This kid — Paretz Partensky — is a young, educated, white, computer programmer. His abuse is likely no different (it might be less egregious?) than abuse meted out to people in San Francisco far more vulnerable than he. But Partensky gets on hot-new-story-telling-platform Medium and tells the story of his 12 hours of detention.
Officer Durkin, in the foreground, is telling Ben that he cannot take this photo. According to Attorney Krages, you are allowed to take photos in public places. http://www.krages.com/ThePhotographersRight.pdf Officer Durkin’s reprimand is in violation of Ben’s rights.
Partensky’s account is nuanced — he provides necessary details; he gives benefit of doubt to most of the characters involved; he tries to put himself in the position of others throughout the ordeal; he is aware of his white privilege; he ponders what different outcomes may have arisen had he and others interacted differently. In short, it is a compelling read.
Let’s not be churlish and say this is a young, comfy, SF-coder-class entrepreneur using an online platform to have a whinge. Let’s be civic and responsible and say no-one should be subject to arbitrary and vengeful treatment from law enforcement. Let us not allow our uncomfortable relationship to racial and income inequality, nor our relationship to white privilege be an excuse to dismiss Partensky’s story. Let us be shocked. Let us be angry. Let us thank Partensky for bringing his account to light.
There’s a beguiling animated feature up on the website of Australia’s Global Mail. Illustrated by Sam Wallman, the piece tells the story of a former worker at an immigrant detention facility and how he — along with those locked up — slowly lost his mind. The detention center (we should all just call it a prison) was, and is, a incubator for illogic and for cruelty. An atmosphere that only rewards dehumanisation persists.
The facility is operated by the Serco Group, a British-based multinational corporation with interests and operations in logistics, security, government contracts across the world . It seems detention facilities are a boom sector for a company like Serco which operates all of Australia’s detention facilities. Serco hit the headlines late last year in Britain when it faced allegations of covering up extensive sexual predation and abuse at Yarl’s Wood, the UK’s largest immigration detention center for women.
As I’ve noted before, Australian’s are worried about Serco’s practices.
Not photography, but in this case, more powerful than a photograph. Maybe it’s the human touch within a pen stroke?
Thanks to Gemma Rose-Turnbull (an Australian) for the tip.