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It was a double whammy this week. Everyone noticed the 6,000 page report into CIA torture. Many won’t know that today was the day that Justice Department attorneys presented the Obama administrations rationale for suppressing over 2,100 photos and videos of torture by American military personnel in Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Since 2009, the Obama administration has argued that releasing them would inflame anti-American sentiment abroad and place Americans at risk. Federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York is not so easily convinced and wants the government to explain, photograph by photograph, how each might pose a threat to national security. The fight to release these photos dates to 2004, when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
David Levi Strauss has tracked these developments from the very beginning. Several chapters in his new book is Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014) deal directly with the war over control of torture photos.
Strauss and I, for WIRED talked about state secrets, how the brain is wired, the political power of images and whether or not photos of Osama Bin Laden’s corpse actually exist.
WIRED: Why has the release of 2,000-plus remaining images and videos made by US military personnel in Abu Ghraib not been resolved?
Strauss: Because of the effectiveness of the images. They became the symbol of the change in US policy to include torture. Images are very powerful. That’s why the US government has become very afraid of the effects of these images worldwide.
The other amazing thing about the Abu Ghraib images was that they crossed the boundary between private and public. That is unusual. It changed things for photojournalism, for the military, certainly, and for the public at large. Prior to the release of the Abu Ghraib images, the military was handing out cameras to soldiers so that they could use photos to stay in touch with their families, and to be used operationally.
Read the full conversation: The War Over the US Government’s Unreleased Torture Pictures.
[All images for this Prison Photography post via Salon]
It’s been a long week. Spending most of ones time in front of a screen can get isolating. Built into online publishing is the ever-present wonder about how ones work is received on the screens and in the minds of readers.
That’s why letters such as this are the perfect tonic for doubt and fatigue. Sustaining words.
Hi Mr. Pete Brook
I like your webpage so so much. Thank you. I didn’t think there was a webpage for prison pics till my good friend Samara from my 12-step group showed me. I really love your new article about the two brothers. It is my favorite of yours articles so far. I was incarcerated. My dad has been locked up. Mom has been locked up. My bros have been locked up. I feel like I could put my own family in those pics from the two brothers project and it would be the same emotions. I really love that project. The pics brought tears to my eyes cause I felt grief sadness that I don’t think about much. I felt my innocence. I did feel peace looking at them 2.
Thanks for reading my letter Mr. Brook. Have a blessed Christmas and New Years 2015.
And onward to next week. And the one after that.
Arne Svenson, The Neighbors #11, 2012 © Arne Svenson, Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York
A greater cynic than I might argue that Arne Svenson was working for the state when making photographs of his neighbors. One might suggest this not because there is any inherent value, lest any valuable information about the individuals within the snooping shots, but rather, because the brouhaha that erupted around the exhibition of The Neighbors at the Julie Saul Gallery was a distorting and damaging version of the ongoing conversation about privacy in our society.
I go on to explain how the protestations of Svenson’s (very affluent) neighbours, lawsuits and public outcry derailed us from actually seeing the more pernicious and invasive layers of surveillance we are subject to daily … and especially in New York city.
Read the 1,200 words here.
THE HILLMAN PHOTOGRAPHY INITIATIVE (HPI)
The inaugural HPI at CMOA “investigates the lifecycle of images: their creation, transmission, consumption, storage, potential loss, and reemergence. Technology accelerates the pace of this cycle, and often alters or redirects the trajectory of an image in unexpected, powerful ways.”
Transition and consumption: Love that. I’m proud to be associated with CMOA’s broader consideration of images within society. HPI is getting inside the bloodstreams of the media and changing the discussion.
Photo: Bob Schutz. Inmates at Attica State Prison in Attica, N.Y., raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity, Sept. 1971, during the Attica uprising, which took the lives of 43 people.
Last week marked the 43rd anniversary of the historic Attica Rebellion. In conjunction with the anniversary, Critical Resistance New York City (CRNYC) has launched the Attica Interview Project, to support prison closure organizing in New York. CRNYC is looking for people with personal archives stories and will collect and facilitate oral history, video and audio recordings, and still images.
CRNYC’s documentation is grounded in a philosophy of self-representation.
“People who participate determine how and when they are photographed and recorded,” says a CRNYC statement. “We strive to represent interview participants not as victims, but as agents of social change struggling individually and collectively to improve their lives and conditions.”
ATTICA INTERVIEW PROJECT
Bryan Welton, a member with Critical Resistance New York City wrote:
At the time of the rebellion, the US prison population was less than 200,000. On the fourth day of the prisoner-led takeover of Attica, September 13th, 1971, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller deployed New York State Troopers to set murderous siege on the prison. A campaign of sustained terror and repression to restore the power of guards and administrators at Attica followed. The systematic attack against the gains won by struggles inside and outside prison walls, which nourished the spirit of revolt in Attica and the broader prisoner movement of the period, parallels the rise of the prison industrial complex to where we stand today. Few people then imagined that the imprisoned population in the US would explode to 2.4 million.
The Attica Rebellion developed not only in response to conditions of dehumanizing racism and violence in the prison, but was strengthened by the confluence of imprisoned revolutionaries from Black liberation, Native and Puerto Rican anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist movements. The demands articulated by the Attica Liberation Faction unleashed an abolitionist imagination that continues to propel prisoner-led struggles up to today. Through oral history, the project seeks to document the legacy of repression, survival and resistance at Attica, while using material to shape a broader narrative about the PIC and abolition and fuel ongoing demands to close Attica.
Supported by sentencing reforms won through organized opposition to the Rockefeller Drug Laws and fights over deadly conditions in New York prisons and jails, prison populations in New York have decreased by 15,000 people since 2000. This decrease combined with the costs of maintaining staffing and infrastructure for empty prisons moved Governor Andrew Cuomo to close nine prisons in four years, with four more closures projected within the year. Although dispersed across the state and including both men’s and women’s prisons, what is common among these closure targets is their classification as minimum or medium security prisons holding people convicted of low-level drug offenses and “nonviolent crimes.” As we seize on any and all opportunities for prison closures, we understand the threat of cementing the “worst of the worst” classification for people held in maximum security, supermax and solitary confinement units and how the deepening of that logic enables the disappearance, dehumanization, torture and death of people in prisons everywhere. This criminalization is being amplified as prison-dependent economies, from the political representatives of prison towns to the 26,000 member guards’ unions (NYSCOPBA), desperately mobilize against decarceration and prison closures.
The stories of resistance, resilience, and struggle coming from the survivors of Attica and prisons across the country can offer not only a reminder of the history in which our movement is rooted, but a signal fire of which direction we should head. In the words of Attica Brother, LD Barkley, “The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those that are oppressed.”
To get involved contact:
Critical Resistance New York City
PO Box 2282
New York NY 10163
Photo: AP. Prisoners of Attica state prison, right, negotiate with state prisons Commissioner Russell Oswald, lower left, at the facility in Attica, N.Y., where prisoners had taken control of the maximum-security prison in rural western New York. Sept. 10, 1971.
Such a careful approach and revisiting of Attica’s history is timely and essential. An accurate version — and not the official state version — must be established. Following Attica, there were a number of inquiries (for example, Cornell Capa’s photographic survey of the facility here and here), however, not all inquiries met or served public need. Suspicions of a cover up of excessive violence and extrajudicial murder during the retaking of the prison have been constant.
The second and third parts of the Meyer Report (1975), an investigation of a commission headed by New York State Supreme Court JusticeBernard Meyer, were sealed and never released to the public.
The Democrat & Chronicle reports:
The focused on claims of a cover-up of crimes committed by police who seized control of the prison with a deadly fusillade of gunfire. Those allegations came from Assistant Attorney General Malcolm Bell, who had been part of an investigation into fatal shootings and other possible crimes committed during the retaking.
Wikipedia, quoted civil rights documentary Eyes On The Prize, triangulates the claims:
Elliot L.D. Barkley, was a strong force during the negotiations, speaking with great articulation to the inmates, the camera crews, and outsiders at home. Barkley was killed during the recapturing of the prison. Assemblyman Arthur Eve testified that Barkley was alive after the prisoners had surrendered and the state regained control; another inmate stated that the officers searched him out, yelling for Barkley, and shot him in the back.
It is believed parts two and three of the Meyer Report detail grand jury testimony given during an investigation into the riot and retaking. Late last year, a New York judge ruled the documents could be opened. It came at a request of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The majority of people are in support of the move, understandably given the length of time since the murders. The state troopers are opposed.
It’s high time the people had access to the same information the state has had for nearly four decades. Only then can we confirm or dismiss a state cover-up and the protection of law enforcement individuals and those from whom they took orders, namely then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Photo: Goran Hugo Olsson. Source.
Bobby Seale, 11 Sept 1971. Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther movement, was brought in at one point during the rebellion to help with negotiations.
A prisoners’ make-shift hospital during the rebellion.
Law enforcement, civilians and press cover their nostrils from the airborne teargas following the state’s storming of Attica Prison, Sept. 13th, 1971.
Photo: John Shearer. Law enforcement escort a prisoner out of Attica following the storming of the facility. (Source)
This gruesome photo is one of several of murdered corpses included on this webpage. The images are uncredited, so I cannot verify there veracity. I’ve not seen them elsewhere. The boots, railings and sunken yard look consistent with Attica.
Prisoners are regimented following the state’s retaking of control of Attica Prison. (I have no idea when the trench was dug, by whom or for what purpose).
An injured prisoner is assisted out of D-Yard, following the state’s teargassing and assault upon the prisoners.
There’s so much out there online for you to dig into, so I humbly recommend these starting points:
Attica Uprising 101, is the best brief description of the events those 5 days in September 1971.
Forgotten Survivors of Attica, a group of guards and prisoners’ families alike who are in search of transparency and believe there was a state cover up.
Project Attica, a recent project with school children to teach them about racial politics, oral histories and Black America using Attica as a prism through which to do so.
Here is one of the better collection of images online in a single place.
Finally, I’d like to know if these photographs of prisoners’ corpses can be verified as being from Attica on the 13th, September, 1971. They are presented as images of those killed as a result of the state assault on the prison.
Prison Obscura got a nice review by Carolina Miranda in the Los Angeles Times.
Perhaps most gut-wrenching is the series of pictures generated as evidence for the case of Brown vs. Plata, a class-action lawsuit against the state of California, related to issues of access to medical care and serious overcrowding in the state’s prisons. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered California to release 46,000 inmates in order to relieve conditions.
“[Prison Obscura] is aesthetically beautiful and challenging, and it’s didactic without being patronizing,” says Juliet Koss, who is the director of the Humanities Institute at Scripps. “But it also ties into what we are doing in the Institute. The theme for the semester is ‘silence’ and this was an interesting way of exploring that: of people who have been silenced or the general silence that there is about this topic.”
An absolute honour to have the attentions of critic Carolina Miranda, whose writings and focus on the vernacular, on everyday creativity and on pursuits of beauty and meaning beyond the restrictive parameters of the art market, I have long admired.
A few months ago, I shared an announcement for the ‘Marking Time’ Prison Arts and Activism Conference, organised by the Institute for Research on Women (IRW) at Rutgers University.
Earlier this week, IRW announced the schedule for the October 8the -10th conference. On it are some inspiring artists whose work I’ve long admired from distance. Great line up.
I’m also pleased to mention that I’ll be moderating a panel, the proposal for which, for your informations, I have copy&pasted below.
Panel: Imagery and Prisons: Engaging and Persuading Audiences
We produce and consume an enormous quantity of images each day (350 million photos are uploaded daily to Facebook alone and the average person sees 5,000 advertisements per day). While images often reify stereotypes and social causality, many artists are creating and distributing photographs or disrupting dominant visual culture in hopes of supporting or instigating prison activism and reform. By looking at three practitioners with distinct approaches, audiences and strategies, this panel will explore the power, limitations, and corresponding ethics of visual activism. What images do citizens have access to? Who controls cliche and motif? What new images of prisons and prisoners need to be made? How can collaborative modes of producing and understanding images be catalysts for collective action? How can photography get past its role as mere documentation of prisons to help create visions for alternatives to incarceration?
Across New York City, Lorenzo Steele Jr. exhibits photographs he made during his work as a correctional officer deep in Rikers Island. At church groups, in parking lots, in schools, and during summer community days, Steele brings graphic imagery directly to multiple generations within the catchment area of Rikers. Steele’s presentations are accompanied by a number of workshops on conflict reconciliation, criminal justice and community.
Gregory Sale has produced longterm large scale projects that with significant institutional support have managed to bring together many disparate constituencies orbiting the criminal justice world. Sale’s “It’s Not All Black & White” made a conscious effort to wrestle the visual motifs and cliche of crime (striped jumpsuits, pink underwear and even brown skin) that Arizona’s infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio has manipulated for his own political advantage.
Mark Strandquist works with communities to create photographs requested by prisoners (“If you could have a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?”). After sending images to the corresponding prisoners, the photographs are exhibited and expanded upon through extensive public programing that brings students, policy makers, former prisoners, and many others together to engage with the causes, effects, and alternatives to mass incarceration.
Moderator, Pete Brook will ask the panelists which approaches have worked and which have not. What presentations of material have engaged and persuaded audiences? What different expectations and needs do audiences have which we as artists and activists must consider?
Gregory Sale is multidisciplinary, socially-engaged artist, whose work investigates issues of incarceration, citizenship, visual culture and emotional territories. In 2011, Sale orchestrated It’s Not All Black & White, a three-month residency exhibition at ASU Art Museum in Tempe, AZ. 52 programmed events brought together a wide array of constituencies including incarcerated persons, their families, parolees, ex-convicts, correctional officers, elected officials, government employees, members of the community, media representatives, artists, and researchers. It considered the cultural, social and personal issues at stake in the day-to-day workings of the criminal justice system in Arizona. Sale’s most recent project, Sleepover grapples with the challenges of individuals reentering society after periods of incarceration.
Sale is the recipient of a Creative Capital Grant in Emerging Fields (2013) and an Art Matters Grant (2014) . In summer 2012, as a resident artist at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY, and at VCCA in Amherst, VA, Sale’s work has appeared in museums nationwide including the Ackland Art Museum, UNC-Chapel Hill and the Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville. Sale is Assistant Professor of Intermedia and Public Practice at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. Before that he served as the Visual Arts Director for Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Curator of Education at ASU Art Museum, and as a public art project manager for the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture.
Lorenzo Steele Jr. is a former New York City Correction Officer. He worked for 12 years at Rikers Island, considered by some as the most violent adolescent prison America.
In 2001, Steele founded Future Leaders, a non profit youth that provides workshops, training, education and consultation to children, parents and educators about incarceration and the criminal justice system. Steele has worked as a New York City Board of Education vendor and assisted organizations — such as The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the Nassau/Suffolk (BOCES) school district — with workshops on conflict resolution, bullying and literacy. He has also worked with the Brooklyn District Attorneys office providing gang and prison awareness to at-risk youth. He has lectured at college across the New York area. Steele is the recipient of awards from Congressional, Senate, and State Assemblymen for services to the community and to children’s development.
Mark Strandquist is an artist, educator, and organizer. His projects facilitate interactions that incorporate viewers as direct participants and present alternative models for the civic and artistic ways in which we engage the world around us. Each interactive installation functions not as a culmination but as a starting point and catalyst for dialogue, exchange, and community action. While photography is often used, the visual aesthetics and technical mastery of the medium become secondary to the social process through which the images are created, and the social interactions that each exhibition produces.
The ongoing project Some Other Places We’ve Missed: Windows From Prison was awarded the 2014 Society for Photographic Educators’ National Conference Image Maker Award, a Photowings/Ashoka Foundation Insights Changemaker Award, and the VCU Art’s Dean’s Award by juror Lisa Frieman. Strandquist’s projects have been exhibited and presented in museums, film festivals, conferences, print and online magazines, and independent galleries. The project Write Home Soon was exhibited in the 2012-13 international showcase of Socially Engaged Art at the Art Museum of Americas, Washington, DC. The ongoing project, The People’s Library is part of the permanent collection at the Main Branch of the Richmond Public Library and was presented by Strandquist and Courtney Bowles at the 2013 Open Engagement Conference. Strandquist is an adjunct faculty member at the Corcoran College of Art, a teaching artist with the University of Richmond’s Partners in the Arts, a Professional Fellow at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and a Capital Fellow at Provisions Library.
Final Words, launched today, is a sprawling documentary project that focuses on the humanity at center of the death penalty in America. It is the brainchild of photographer Marc Asnin known for his brick of a book Uncle Charlie. Well, this project takes Asnin from the personal to the political, but it is no less massive. Asnin’s got form.
Asnin is asking photographers and non-photographers alike to submit selfies as statements against the death penalty. I’ll get to that in a moment but first the project and the cause.
Final Words is a book and traveling exhibition, featuring the final statements of the 515 prisoners executed by the state of Texas since 1982. Final Words will shape and deliver curricula to American high-schoolers. If we can get the youngest generation talking then perhaps we can engineer a future without the barbaric death penalty?
The project statement explains that more than one person every month for thirty-one years has been executed by the Lone Star State:
Just before the execution is completed, each prisoner is given the opportunity to share their final thoughts. […] It is their words, their final words in this life, that allow the reader to experience the underlining humanity central to the death penalty debate. […] Final Words comprises a part of the legacy that will live on beyond us and it will stand as a testament to the kind of society we were—who our criminals were and how we implemented our idea of justice. Final Words interrogates our presuppositions about the death penalty. […] While this book is a document of death—the death of both the guilty and innocent, the criminals and the victims—it attempts to create a dialogue about life.
All this takes a movement. And money. An IndieGogo campaign will launch in a months time.
The editioned Final Words books will cost a pretty penny. Their sales will help raise money to pump simpler versions of the content and curricula into the bloodstream of the education system.
Each page of the book features a prisoner’s mug shot, their age both at the time of the crime and when they were put to death, a description of the crime for which they stand convicted, and their final words.
Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty
In other efforts to corral some cash, Neverland Publications (cofounded by Asnin) and VII Association are collaborating on Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty, an international photo campaign to call for an end to executions in America. Highflying pixelmakers & imagershakers will submitting alongside us flailing Instagram plebs.
Note that the word “selfie” is used as a verb. I like that. Jury’s out as to how much a collection of selfies can effect entrenched moral politics, but it’s worth a try. Social media does nothing if not surprise regularly. And besides, all this just gets people talking ahead of Final Words‘ big fundraising campaign that ignites in October.
As the 501c3 sponsor of the project, VII Photo has asked all its photographers to participate in the selfie campaign. Get yourself in there too:
1. Make a selfie, save it to your computer.
2a. Upload selfie to http://www.final-words.org
2b. Fill out form (name, age, email address, location, how you heard about Photographers Selfies Against the Death Penalty, your preferred photography genre)
2c. Personalize your statement against the death penalty, by completing the following “I stand against the death penalty because …” in 140 characters or less.
Go on, selfie against the machine!
[Oh, if you’re wondering how and why Asnin and his colleagues have the last statements of 515 men and women, it is because for some reason the state of Texas keeps a public online database of them. Weird, no?!]
The 15th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty takes place in Houston, Texas on Saturday October 25th at 2pm. Details on the exact location in Houston will be announced later.