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Screengrab: FeelingCagey.com . Via WIRED.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Selfies recently. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about what useful things I might have to say.
“I cannot accept that Selfies should be dismissed out of hand as a lazy mode of photographic production, as to do so would be a refusal to engage with the way hundreds of millions (of predominantly young) people choose to image the world and their place in it. The Selfie form doesn’t make sense to an adult world as the dominant imperatives of social responsibility and/or artistic merit tied to past discourse about photographic production seem absent. But why should kids step sideways to meet old priorities of the medium when adults could as easily step sideways to meet them where they are?”
I cover a lot more in the (long) comment including: the Selfie as empowerment; the gender disparities in how we judgement and consume Selfies; the best written analysis on Selfies; and why artistic responses to the Selfie might be the most valuable departure points for discussion on the form.
Check out Marvin’s post and have your say about Selfies.
Installation shot of Erik Kessels’ 24 Hours Of Photo, at FOAM Gallery, Amsterdam, December 2011.
For the next few weeks, I am co-blogging Marvin Heiferman‘s posts at the Fotomuseum Winterthur’s Still Searching blog. I anticipate many of the ideas will overlap from previous conversations at Wired and Photoville between Marvin and I.
Marvin’s method is to pose more questions than answers — to stimulate conversation:
‘What is new now is that, as a result of advances in digital technology, options for the making, mining, and sharing images are increasing exponentially. As a result, what photography is, what photographs are, and what “the photographic” means have to be continually and, at times, dramatically rethought.’
So far, I’ve responded to posts on the technologies that allow the manufacture of 1.3 billion images per day, with concern not about production or consumption but concern over storage.
I responded to a curious video of students posing for the camera, with the suggestion that people are taking calculated decisions in their poses in the full knowledge that images move far and wide across our digital landscapes.
In both cases, my link-replete comments have run on a bit. I’d like to say that I’ll be a bit more concise in future responses but then Marvin only went and decided to take on the Selfie in his most recent post.
Please check out Marvin’s posts between now and mid-December and hold our feet to the fire over these ideas of which we are trying to make sense.
Still Searching, which was launched in January 2012, is a smart, designed and long-term blogging project for the photo community. It is structured through the contributions of six “bloggers in residence” per year, each writing for six weeks. During which the blogger writes five to six statements on a specific theory or aspect of photography — or on anything else he or she is working on or thinking about — in photographic production, photography as art, as a communication and information tool in the context of social media or photojournalism, and as a form of scientific or legal evidence, techniques, applications, distribution strategies, contexts, theoretical foundations, ontology and perspectives on the medium.
Screengrab of Josh Begley’s Prison Map
If you happen to be in Seattle this weekend, I will too! I’ll be speaking to the throbbing masses at the Society for Photographic Education (SPE) Northwest 2013 Conference.
Now, I’m not a photographer or an educator (formally speaking), but the theme of the conference Connecting Through Photography could not be more up my alley.
My plan is to rip through a full-bleed Powerpoint giving an overview of the history of photography in American prisons; to draw out the dominant aesthetics; to ask if what we’ve seen adequately describes the realities of prisons; and wonder about what we haven’t seen. To close, I will lay out what I feel are the most relevant and effective ways to think about, and to use, photography in our attempts to connect with America’s incarcerated class (which at 2.3 million men, women and children, is a significant portion of society to connect to, listen to, and understand.
I’m excited; it’ll be a live presentation of many ideas I’ve been quietly stewing over recently.
I’ll be pacing the stage in Room 632 at the Art Institute Seattle, on the morning of Friday, November 08th, 11:00am – 12:00pm.
Come say hello!
“The U.S holds more prisoners and employs more prison staff than any other nation on earth. But there is no central location where the public, policy makers, students or researchers can benefit from the many years of first-hand experience of prisoners and prison workers,” read the email that landed in my inbox last week.
The American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) is an in-progress, internet-based, digital archive of non-fiction essays recently established by the Digital Humanities Initiative at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York.
APWA addresses a need and it could be of immeasurable value. It’s early days; the archive has yet to fill. Digital storage provides an almost limitless potential for growth. The accumulation of material is also without deadline.
Sure, there are many great places such as the PEN American Center, The Beat Within, Prison Legal News, The Angolite, San Quentin News, Prison Writing blog, where one can find expert prison writing, but how much of this is searchable by key terms? On what page of a Google search does it land? There’s so much good but untapped writing on prisons out there that to have a feasible search tool (designed by library-scientists) is very exciting.
FROM THE SOURCE
“We seek authors who write with the authority that only first-person experience can bring,” says APWA about it’s one parameter for submissions. I think that insistence gives the project weight and legitimacy.
While the APWA is open to all styles, they encourage first hand accounts from prisoners, prison employees, and prison volunteers of life and work conditions within American prisons.
Often prisoners and prison employees are in opposition, but with submissions from both groups who knows what cross-pollination of perspectives might emerge?
From here, I’ll leave you with APWA’s own description of the project:
All topics are of interest, including descriptions of sources of stress, ways of coping, health care, causes of violence and ways to reduce violence, material conditions, education, employment conditions and the challenges these conditions present, the environment for volunteers, the aging prison population, visions of a better way to operate (personally, politically, institutionally, etc.), reflections on the work of dealing with time inside (for workers as well as prisoners), the challenges of physical and psychological survival, public perception and popular depictions of prisoners and prison workers, the politics and economics of mass incarceration, what works and why it works, and what doesn’t work and why it doesn’t work (i.e. practical views on reform), etc. We are open to any testimony about the issues that matter to prison staff, administrators, corrections officers, teachers, volunteers, and prisoners.
We value writing that takes thoughtful, constructive positions even on passionately felt ideas.
The APWA is intended for researchers and for the general public, to help them understand American prison conditions and the prison’s practical effects and place in society. All the work in the APWA will be accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world with access to the Internet. The APWA will open the American prison to public observation, and showcase the thinking and writing being produced inside.
Once included in the APWA, work will be retained indefinitely. Contributors can write under pseudonyms or anonymously. We reserve the right to edit or reject work that advocates violence, names names in ongoing legal cases, or libels named individuals. The APWA is not currently accepting poetry or fiction.
We accept art (on a single 8.5×11 page) only if accompanied by an essay. A signed permission sheet must be included to post work on the APWA. By signing on the signature line below, you are granting us permission to include your work in the APWA. The questionnaire information will be used to offer researchers points of reference (for example, to study the specific concerns of staff who are veterans, or of Black and Latino men in maximum-security facilities).
There is no deadline. We seek the widest possible gathering of American prison writing, and we will read, scan, and transcribe essays into the APWA on a continuing basis. Previously published work is acceptable if authors retain copyright. Please let us know where and when your essay appeared in print.
Non-fiction essays, based on first-hand experience, should be limited to 5,000 words (15 double-spaced pages). Clearly hand-written pages are welcome. We charge no fees. We will read all writing submitted.
There is a PDF form to submit with your essay. It includes the usual stuff — name, age, address, date, prison facility. It also includes an optional questionnaire to help the archivists digitally tag and organise essays.
Please share the project, the link, and the address below far and wide.
Mail essays to: APWA, 198 College Hill Road, Clinton, NY 13323.
Marie Levin holds a photo of her brother, Ronnie Dewberry, taken at San Quentin State Prison in 1988. Until recently, it was the last photograph he’d had taken. Photo credit: Adithya Sambamurthy/The Center for Investigative Reporting
STARVED OF THEIR OWN IMAGE
We are now into the second week of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike. It is difficult to get firm figures on the number of participating prisoners. The Los Angeles Times reports 30,000; CNN reports 12,000 and Yahoo reports 7,000+.
I’m inclined to trust the figures sourced by Solitary Watch:
The hunger strike began on July 8th with participation of approximately 30,000 people in two-thirds of California’s prisons, as well as several out-of-state facilities holding California prisoners. In the first days of the hunger strike, approximately 3,200 others also refused to attend work or education classes as a form of protest in support of the hunger strike. As of Sunday, there are an estimated 4,487 still on hunger strike.
Still, formidable numbers.
INVISIBLE AND UNPHOTOGRAPHED PEOPLE
Last week, in conjunction with the initiation of the mass peaceful protect, Michael Montgomery for the Center for Investigative Reporting published an excellent article California Prisons’ Photo Ban Leaves Legacy of Blurred Identities about the ban on portrait photographs of prisoners held in solitary confinement.
The ban resulted from a tension between what a photograph meant or could mean.
For families, a photograph is a tangible connection to their loved one behind bars, but for staff of the four maximum security prisons that upheld the ban, photographs were potential calling cards — circulated by prison gang leaders — both to advise other members that they’re still in charge and to pass on orders.
The ban was lifted in 2011, following the last California prison hunger strike. Montgomery quotes Sean Kernan, the former Under-Secretary of the CDCR
“I think we were wrong, and I think (that) to this day,” he said. “How right is it to have an offender who is behaving … (and) to not be able to take a photo to send to his loved ones for 20 years?” Kernan directed prison staff to ease the restrictions for inmates who were free of any disciplinary violations.
The ban in the four Californian prisons was extraordinary.
“I have never heard of any other prison system or individual prison in America imposing a long-term ban of this kind,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.
As I have stated frequently on Prison Photography, prison (visiting-room) portraiture is one of the most prevalent types of American vernacular photography.
Until artists such as Alyse Emdur and David Adler began to draw focus to this disparate, decentralised, emotion-laden, and high-stake vernacular sub-genre, prison portraits were kept in wallets, on mantles and in side tables. There’s tens of millions of them out there.
And yet, for over 20 years, thousands of men in California were not allowed images of themselves. The additional ban of mirrors in solitary units meant that many men often did not see images of themselves for years on end. Again, to quote Montgomery’s article:
“I have asked my husband, ‘Do you even know what you look like?’ And he says, ‘Kind of, sort of,’ ” said Irene Huerta, whose husband, Gabriel, 54, has been detained at Pelican Bay for 23 years.
THE PHOTOGRAPH AS AN OBJECT OF DEPLOYMENT
In the free world, photographs are ubiquitous, easily created, shared and possessed. The fact that these seemingly innocuous objects were caught in the tussle of control between prison authorities and prisoners is astonishing, and speaks to the power struggle (real and imagined) between the kept and the keepers.
Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said easing the restrictions on prisoner photographs raised no major security concerns, so long as inmates had to earn them. “It’s not as if there’s been an epidemic of inmate photos on the street,” he said.
I am not sure how Rushford would measure this, or even it would significantly alter the lives of prisoners, specifically now during the hunger strike, and especially now when proven or alleged gang affiliations have been put aside by prisoners in solidarity for improved conditions for all.
In light of recent art market fetishism, it would seem the primary reason anyone would want to gather prison portraits would be to repeat Harper’s Books’ $45,000 hustle and cash in on the images?
As for the families (following the ban lift) the value of newly acquired images is not in any doubt:
Seeing an image of their incarcerated relative for the first time in years has sparked renewed hope and revived dormant family connections. For others, the photographs are a shocking reminder of the length of time some inmates have been held in isolation.
CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING LINKS
Michael Montgomery’s California Prisons’ Photo Ban Leaves Legacy of Blurred Identities
Interactive Solitary Lives feature.
A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT THE SOLITARY WATCH WEBSITE
I cannot emphasize enough how important the website Solitary Watch is as a resource. Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and their team of reporters produce high quality journalism — not only for their website but for other news outlets including The Guardian, Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation.
Solitary Watch is an independent media and advocacy project, funded by grants and donations. It is a project of the Community Futures Collective, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. You can support the project here.
I don’t hesitate to say that Solitary Watch has driven much of the critical and visible public discourse about solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails.
As Solitary Watch describes, “Solitary confinement is one of the nation’s most pressing domestic human rights issues — and also one of the most invisible,” which is why I have a vested interest in their work; we’re each interested in making solitary and other egregious aspects of the U.S. prison system more visible.
The image above was drawn by Katherine Fontaine, a San Francisco based architect, prison-questioner, friend to all, and book-art-space-collective co-runner.
“There are very few pictures of SHUs. The last drawing that was found at the Freedom Archives in San Francisco was from when Reagan was the Governor of California,” says Fontaine.
With solitary confinement, such a hot news topic, Fontaine was compelled to sketch when she realised there were very few images of solitary cells in circulation.
“I was given the few photos that exist from other similar prisons and a diagram that was used in a previous court case drawn by a prisoner while in an SHU at Pelican Bay. The drawing is what I came up with from the materials I was given,” explains Fontaine who hopes her drawing of a Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (SHU) will be used — in media materials and campaigns — by any organizations protesting solitary confinement.
Fontaine’s commitment to make reliable sketches of prison spaces and apparatus was spurred by a chance encounter with some fellow professionals in an unlikely place. She was among a crowd outside the Central California Women’s Facility protesting overcrowding inside the prison.
Fontaine noticed a person within the crowd with a sign that read ‘Architects Against Overcrowding In Prisons.’ On the back of the sign was www.ADPSR.org. The acronym stands for Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility. Despite her day job as an architect, ADPSR was not a group with whom she was familiar. Upon reading the statement for the Prison Alternatives Initiative, one of ADPSR’s projects, Fontaine was all-in.
“Our prison system is both a devastating moral blight on our society and an overwhelming economic burden on our tax dollars, taking away much needed resources from schools, health care and affordable housing. The prison system is corrupting our society and making us more threatened, rather than protecting us as its proponents claim. It is a system built on fear, racism, and the exploitation of poverty. Our current prison system has no place in a society that aspires to liberty, justice, and equality for all. As architects, we are responsible for one of the most expensive parts of the prison system, the construction of new prison buildings. Almost all of us would rather be using our professional skills to design positive social institutions such as universities or playgrounds, but these institutions lack funding because of spending on prisons. If we would rather design schools and community centers, we must stop building prisons.”
Fontaine’s sketches will regularly appear in Actually People Quarterly, partly to inform as partly as a means to focus her thoughts.
“People need to see them,” she says. “Also it was such a powerful thing for me to draw that SHU cell. I wonder if anyone else can have a similar feeling just by looking at it or if I just feel so changed by it because I drew it. Maybe it is because I’ve spent years of my life drawing, studying, measuring and designing spaces that in actually creating that image I imagined that actual space so much more clearly than I had before? To imagine being an architect and *designing* that space is incomprehensible to me.”
Below is Fontaine’s sketch of cage used routinely within the California prison system. The cages are sometimes to hold prisoners during transfer between units but, increasingly, used for group *therapy* — an oxymoron if there ever was one.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to share the work of some other determined prison sketchers, some of whom are prisoners.
From the website, Solitary Watch:
One of the most prolific and talented artists in solitary is 60-year-old Thomas Silverstein, who has been in extreme isolation in the federal prison system under a “no human contact” order for going on 30 years. (He describes the experience here.) His artwork appears on this site. It includes meticulously detailed drawings of some of the cells he has occupied, including one pictured below, which is designed (with built-in shower and remote-controlled door to an exercise yard) so that he never has to leave it or encounter anyone at all.
Next is this cell in Ohio, drawn by prisoner Greg Curry.
When depicting prisons and their abuses there is no hierarchy of medium; sketches, photos, videos and oral testimony conspire to deliver a fuller picture. I will say though that these narrative rich drawings are more powerful than many photographs I come across.
If you’re strolling around the centre of Charlottesville these next few days and peep a red newspaper box, reach inside and grab yourself a copy of the free paper within.
Accompanying his exhibition of Some Other Places We’ve Missed at The Bridge: Progressive Arts Initiative, artist Mark Strandquist has created eight pages of photos, activist resources and a call to engage.
Disclaimer: I have a vested interest in promoting this. In the newspaper is a brief editorial I wrote on the history of — and imperative of — photographers and artists working in American prisons. It is reproduced in full below.
Even if I wasn’t personally involved, I’d still be singing the praises of Mark’s work – I’ve posted about Some Other Places We’ve Missed before and I am including the work in a prison photography show next year. When Mark and I chatted about the exhibition of Some Other Places We’ve Missed, we got all giddy about the fact that his show is outside of the official LOOK3 program, and yet he is able to grab some mindshare among the throng of photobodies in Charlottesville this week.
© Mark Strandquist. A photograph made of a scene described by an incarcerated male.
ART AND SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT
For the longest time, photojournalism and documentary work has pursued common good, reliable information, hidden stories and social change. At least, that’s the ideal. With guests such as Susan Meiselas and Martha Rosler, and with Koudelka’s exhibit, the LOOK3 schedule looks serious and seriously good.
Mark and I are huge fans of this year’s LOOK3 line up, but LOOK3 remains a big festival where the cucumber martinis flow like wine and big name photographers will hold court in Charlottesville town center. Festivals are about learning, meeting and sometimes brown-nosing … and, for that, we love them. Everyone leaves photography festivals feeling connected and re-energised and that’s how it should be. But, there’s more.
Some Other Places We’ve Missed asks us to think about image-making in slightly different ways. Not everyone can produce a 20 foot tall Nat Geo vinyl banner, but everyone can have the type of intimate conversations on which Some Other Places We’ve Missed is based. Of course, I am biased because Mark is having conversations with American prisoners and I think there’s rehabilitative value in that.
I’ll stop prattling on now and just say if your interest is piqued then you should attend the panel talk More than A Witness – Photography as Social Engagement on June 15, 2pm – 3:30pm. Speakers are David Levi Strauss, Chair of Critical Studies at the School of Visual Arts, Edgar Endress of Floating Lab Collective, Yukiko Yamagata of the Open Society Foundation, and Matthew Slaats, Executive Director of the Bridge. They’ll discuss how art facilitates dialogue and can be used to reach out to new subjects and engage broader audiences. Find out more on Facebook here.
Mark has programmed a busy schedule of events at The Bridge including a poetry reading and discussion between gallery-goers and prisoners via a direct feed from a local jail. Full details on The Bridge website.
[Scroll down for my newspaper editorial.]
Installation shot of Some Other Places We’ve Missed, opening night at The Bridge, Charlottesville, VA.
EDITORIAL: DRAWING ON MEMORY, WORKSHOP GETS PRISONERS AND PUBLICS THINKING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY, STORY AND HIDDEN SPACE
In the 1970s, a purple barge floated up and down the Hudson River in New York state. Once moored, photographers emerged to teach workshops to communities traditionally outside of art circles; hospital patients, rural high-schoolers and — perhaps most remarkably — prisoners. The buoyant vessel with living and gallery spaces was operated by the Floating Foundation of Photography (FFP).
Not all New York State prisons are on the Hudson and so after initial offerings at Sing Sing, FFP ventured inland, eventually delivering photographic arts education in eight prisons. The majority of workshops were facilitated by founder Maggie Sherwood, her son Steve Schoen and a handful of close associates. But, the FFP enjoyed close ties with the New York arts scene and as such invited leading photographers in recent memory to deliver day-long workshops in the prisons – W. Eugene Smith, Arthur Tress, Mary Ellen Mark, Les Krims, Judy Dater, Lisette Model and Lee Witkin to name a few. The FFP mounted exhibitions of “outsider photography” on the anchored barge in Manhattan and in Central Park.
As one browses the images and stories within Some Other Places We’ve Missed, perhaps it is worth bearing in mind the history of arts education — and specifically the role of photography — in the rehabilitation of those locked up within our prisons and jails. The Floating Foundation represents a particular high point in this history; the access into prisons that it negotiated, the pedagogy it employed, and the optimism it eschewed stand out as extraordinary. These days, opportunities for arts education (with strong photographic components) in the prison industrial complex are rare. As such, projects such as Mark Strandquist’s deserve attention.
In the 1980s, mass incarceration began. In the past 35 years, the number of Americans locked up has more than quadrupled. The war on drugs, indeterminate and longer sentencing, broader definitions of criminal behaviour, the decimation of many safety-nets for society’s most vulnerable, and the politics of rhetoric and fear all contributed to the tumorous growth of America’s prisons. Even in states that entered a prison building boom, facilities were soon overcrowded. As costs soared, pressures mounted and efficiencies took priority, both the ability to provide — and belief in — the efficacy of education and arts to help in the rehabilitation of prisoners waned.
States previously provided high school and college education to prisoners as item lines on their budgets. These were scratched from budgets early, and when the Clinton administration revoked prisoners’ right to federally funded Pell Grants in 1994, the message was clear: prisons exist to incapacitate, not to rehabilitate. The majority of college level education provided in state prisons these days is administered by either earnest non-profits, University departments with social justice mandates, and sometimes the two in partnership. Prisons remain legally obliged to enroll prisoners without high-school diplomas into GED programs, but the success of students already alienated by public schooling often hampers success. To speak generally, it is the limited scope of — and limited opportunities for — education in prison that scupper advancement. To wright this ship, a huge shift in political will, informational (media) exchange and tax-payer attitude is required.
Prisoners are lining up to be part of this collective shift of consciousness. “Lucky” prisoners may live in state facilities close to a big city which can draw on volunteers to run programs previously provided by the state. Others find opportunities designed for successful reentry toward the end of their terms. But still, the majority of American prisoners have little to no voice and are for all intents and purposes invisible. Existing creative outlets include law libraries (although not in private prisons), pen-pal programs, and vocational work (prison factories remain because of the immediate profits they create), but these are programs that should exist for all and form merely first rung of the ladders to self-improvement and broadening of the mind.
“The neighborhood was middle class, nice, where everyone knew everyone. One great lady taking care of us all – grandmother; Big Momma for short. The house set on fire when one cousin playing with matches. Had to move into government owned property. Family split up. Never as close as before. Miss the love. Home base.”
Some Other Places We’ve Missed brings to us the voices, regrets, dreams and imagination of just a small number of men incarcerated in Richmond County Jail. Mark Strandquist provides us a bridge into their worlds. One needn’t share the political position of an artist to recognize the imperatives of a work or an action; intellectual curiosity and community engagement can saturate the entire political spectrum. Strandquist’s work is sadly exceptional, but it needn’t be. Perhaps, his tenacity is exceptional, but I believe it is within reach of us all. Whenever possible we should be thinking of ways that we can engage with our nation’s prison population. It is a population that has been strategically manipulated to the point of invisibility.
Cameras are a security tool for prison administrations, but in the hands of others are a security hazard. The ability to see, frame and witness life behind bars inherently involves power. In mugshots, in surveillance and in tightly-controlled visiting room digital portraits, prison authorities have a near monopoly on such power. Only rare and serendipitous moments (usually a sympathetic superintendent) give rise to an artist being permitted to use a camera in prison space — Robert Gumpert, Kristen Wilkins, Jenn Ackerman and Jeff Barnet-Winsby are a few examples.
Strandquist navigated this potential barrier by conducting a photography workshop without any introduction of cameras into the classroom. His simple question, “If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?” acted as proxy to any release of the shutter. He asked students to think photographically. While the images are made by Strandquist beyond the prison walls, the essential discussions about memory, self-reflection, the power of photography and the comfort of the image all inform the project.
Through Strandquist’s photographs, we the public, are given an opportunity to connect with the incarcerated; their imagined windows become, momentarily, our window into their lives. But the 1/125th of a second needed to make a photograph is a perverse fraction of the months and years many spend imprisoned. Are the photographs enough? On their own, probably not. But the collaborative and educational core to the project is considerable. As audience, we should employ the same amount of imagination as Strandquist’s students and consider similar ways we can engage with incarcerated persons. There is every reason to think Strandquist’s methodology can be replicated in prisons and jails across the nation. With 2.3 million men, women and children behind bars Some Other Places We’ve Missed should also be a prompt for us to meditate on the millions of sights and experiences in American prisons that we never witness.
Mark Strandquist is a multi-media artist and curator based in Richmond, VA, who creates work that incorporates viewers as direct participants, features histories that are typically distorted or ignored, and blurs the boundary between artistic practice and social engagement. His work has been featured in various film festivals and independent galleries as well as a current exhibit at the Art Museum of Americas in Washington, DC. He is currently working on a BFA at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has a Tumblr.