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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.

COURTROOM BEATING

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.

Partensky

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.

visitation

Bearing Witness is a one-day symposium hosted by SFMOMA assessing the ways in which photography matters now more than ever. Loosely, the theme is connections. I will be presenting and I’m toying with some ideas surrounding the emergent trend in video visitation. Maybe. Possibly, I’ll retread safe ground and present the ideas that informed the recent Prison Obscura exhibition.

I’m on stage in the morning, I have been told. Bearing Witness is for one day only – Sunday 16th March. Speakers include David Guttenfelder, chief photographer in Asia for the Associated Press; Susan Meiselas, photographer, Magnum Photos; Margaret Olin, senior research scholar, Yale University; Doug Rickard, artist and founder of AMERICANSUBURBX; Kathy Ryan, director of photography, The New York Times Magazine; and Zoe Strauss, artist, Magnum Photos.

Organisers Erin O’Toole, SFMOMA associate curator of photography and Dominic Willsdon, SFMOMA Curator of Education and Public Programs, have posed these questions for the symposium:

Given the power and pervasiveness of photography in both art and everyday life, what is the significance of the rapid and fundamental changes that the field is undergoing? How have social media, digital cameras, and amateur photojournalism altered the way photographs capture the everyday, define current events, and steer social and political movements? How have photographers responded to these shifting conditions, as well as to the new ways in which images are understood, shared, and consumed? How have our expectations of photography changed? 

Bearing Witness is preceded on March 14 and 15 by Visual Activism, a two-day symposium that explores relationships between visual culture and activist practices. Zanele Muholi is presenting at that, so not to be missed either.

DATE + TIME + LOCATION

10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Sunday, March 16, 2014
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street San Francisco, CA 94103

MAP

TICKETS

Admission for both events is free, but it’s wise to register. The 500 spots for Bearing Witness have gone, but that’s always the case with over-zealous free-to-register-symposium-photo-enthusiasts isn’t it? Sign up for the waitlist and you’ll probably get in. I hope.

Image source: Toledo Blade

AmyElkinsPartingWords

Amy Elkins‘ latest body of work Parting Words is a visual representation of every execution in the state of Texas since the ban on capital punishment was overturned in 1976.

Parting Words was just featured on the Huffington Post, for which I wrote a few hundred words. That didn’t seem enough, so I asked Amy some questions about the project to gain a fuller picture.

Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): You made Black is the Day, Black is the Night (BITDBITN). Now Parting Words. Both are about the harshest imprisonments and sentences in America. Do overlaps between the projects exist? Are the overlaps visible? If so, is the overlap in your personal politics, in the project, or in both?

Amy Elkins (AE): I started the two projects in 2009 and am still wrapping up final details with each. Black is the Day, Black is the Night came first. Through the execution of the first man I wrote with for that project, I stumbled into Parting Words.

Parting Words has taken me a few years to complete and, even now, it remains a work in progress — currently the project has 506 images but it is updated yearly, growing with each execution.

The research behind it all, especially while writing to men on death row (two of which were executed during our time of correspondence) made reading and pulling quotes from the roster of those who had been executed in the state of Texas a dark, taxing experience. Not only was I reading through all of their statements, but detouring into description after description of violent crimes that land one on death row. Honestly, it felt too heavy at times.

PP: What was the impulse then?

AE: I was intrigued that the state of Texas documented and kept such a tidy online archive for anyone to explore. As a photographer (like many, doubling as a voyeur) I already had my own connection to the subject matter through BITDBITN, and I suppose I allowed my obsessive side to surface in order to create a visual archive. It was an important story to tell.

AmyElkinsPartingWords AmyElkinsPartingWords AmyElkinsPartingWords

PP: What are your thoughts on American prisons and the criminal justice system?

AE: Over several years of correspondence with five men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who went in as juveniles, I have learned a great deal from the inside about what it is like to exist in the conditions of maximum security and death row units; what those units provide; and what they deny.

A system that uses long-term solitary confinement and capital punishment is broken. Housing someone in infinite isolation has been proven to be hugely damaging to one’s psychological and physical state. This type of isolation breeds behavioral and emotional imbalances that are bound to cause most to remain in a perpetual state of anxiety, depression and anger. Which means they are set up for failure. There is absolutely no way to rehabilitate in such conditions.  But clearly rehabilitation isn’t what they have in mind.

I have written with one man in particular who has served 20 years in solitary confinement as part of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence for a non-murder related crime he committed aged 16. He has written about going years talking through concrete walls without ever seeing the men he holds daily conversations with. He spends nearly 23 hours a day in a small cell by himself and when he is let out, he is shackled and permitted to exercise in a slightly larger room by himself for an hour. How he’s gone 20 years in these conditions and not gone completely mad is mind blowing.

That said, most men that I wrote with serving death row sentences were in fairly similar conditions, some having served onward of 16 years in solitary confinement while waiting for their execution. Two of the men I have written with have been executed and through the experience of writing letters to them and in some cases reaching out to family members leading up to such events, I have seen how capital punishment seems to create a continuous cycle of violence, pain and loss within our society. It leaves not one open wound, but several. If there’s closure for anyone, it’s temporary. And unfortunately the loss that the victims family originally endured remains. But now there is a new set of mourners in the mix. The system seems so incredibly flawed and barbaric.

PP: Do archives for last words exist for those killed in other states?

AE: I have yet to come across an archive as in-depth and publicly accessible as the one compiled by the state of Texas.

AmyElkinsPartingWords AmyElkinsPartingWords AmyElkinsPartingWords

PP: Are you afraid of death?

AE: I think I’m more afraid of the physical pain associated with dying.

PP: Where do we go when our time is up?

AE: Sounds cheesy, but I think we stick around and linger in some capacity with those who love us the most.

PP: Given the images “read” very differently if the viewer is close or far away, what’s the ideal size for these works?

AE: Ideally I would like to show these images on a smaller scale but include all of them.  This forces an intimacy that I want, where the viewer has to get close to each image in order to experience the depth of the project.

PPAnything else you’d like to add?

AE: In both projects, I always remained neutral. I refrained from projecting my own feelings into whether I felt those I worked with or made work about were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted. Making BITDBITN, I was more interested in hearing stories from those within prison systems in America, about the psychological state they might be in while in such conditions, while potentially facing their own death. I was interested in discussing with them what it was like to be removed from the world most of us take for granted, to lose memory by being removed from the source of memory, to not always have a strong sense of self-identity. I felt I hadn’t enough information to warrant my own judgment, and so, if I had projected any, neither project would have manifested.

PP: Thanks, Amy.

AE: Thank you, Pete.

AmyElkinsPartingWords

ELKINS ELSEWHERE

In December 2013, Daylight Digital published a presentation of Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night with an accompanying essay by yours truly. The 1,500 words were built upon a conversation Elkins and I began in late 2011.

erikaschultz

Sisters Faisa Farole, 33, left, and Jamila Farole, 28, are among women trying to preserve female-only swim times at the Tukwila Pool. Photo: Erika Schultz / Seattle Times

I’m a week late on sharing this. But it is important. Fox News made unauthorised use of Erika Schultz‘s Seattle Times double portrait. Fox News did so to push a disgusting Islamophobic story about “the rise” of Sharia Law in America. Schultz made her image in the suburbs of Seattle. Fox were commenting on events in Minnesota.

On the Seattle Times website, Schultz made this classy response:

Using my photo to illustrate a story on a swimming program in Minnesota, under the title “Sharia Law: Swim Class for Somali Muslim Girls,” is unfair to the young women in the photo and misleads viewers.

For years, photographers on our staff have worked to develop contacts, trust and story ideas within this region’s many communities—including the East African community. Photographs can be extremely sensitive, but I’ve seen access increase over the years due to positive response to our stories and photo projects.

An incident like this has the power to intrude into those relationships and our future coverage. People may not want to work with media outlets for fear of being portrayed inaccurately.

This out-of-context and misleading use of this image reaffirms the importance of ethical, contextual journalism.

I appreciate the Farole sisters for the courage to stand up for their beliefs, and their willingness to share their story with the larger community to which they belong.

Erika is one of the most responsible journalists I know (we’ve worked together here, herehere and here). Erika works, with sensitivity, on her relationships with subjects over long periods. Fox News is an arrogant and racist idiot-giant that crushes anything that is nuanced or beautiful.

This is a sad turn of events for any photojournalist and for his or her subjects, but it’s particularly frustrating for a professional as diligent as Erika.

Cage

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 wrote an extended comment to Marvin Heiferman’s blog post about Selfies. It’s as certain as I can be right now about a form of portraiture that is changing faster than my thinking.

“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.

erik kessels

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

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.

begley

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!

Also at SPENW are my buds and photowizards Eirik Johnson, Holly Andres and Erika Schultz. Check out John Keatley too. And definitely the folks at Youth In Focus speaking about their important work.

Full schedule.

Tickets.

apwa-logo

“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.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

Prison Photography Archives

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