Black Bag Hanging

I’ve celebrated John Darwell‘s project Discarded Dog Shit Bags (DDSB) once before. Happy to note that the work is now available as a photo book.

DDSB is just about bonkers enough; it is left-field (in all fields, actually, and steaming) and DDSB proves there is a photo project for absolutely everything.

“I began to notice the appearance of dog shit bags,” explains Darwell, whose 2011 project chronicles the growing epidemic. “At first I spotted them tucked away in dry stone walls or behind said wall. But then they began to appear everywhere, hanging on fences and thrown into bushes. Anywhere they could be found they would be.”

Bousteds Bag

While seemingly silly and scatalogical, the project points to a real issue that many city-dwellers feel is out of control. Americans own 83.3 million pet dogs. In Europe, the figure is 60 million, including 8.5 million in Britain. Those big stats mean it only takes a small proportion of irresponsible owners to make an unsightly mess.

Darwell’s not showing anything that the vast majority of people haven’t seen before — and it’s the familiarity with the images that calls attention to the problem. In the past, Darwell has documented other environmental issues, including various nuclear sites, like Chernobyl, but when he’s not been working on long-term projects he’s been at home in rural Cumbria, England, walking his dogs.

“The local parks became particularly troublesome but even beauty spots were not immune,” says Darwell. “Why go to the trouble of bagging your pooch’s poop to then simply chuck into a bush or hang on a railing?”

Orange Bag

Green Bag Draped

Bag With Light

Black Bag in Thorn Bush  Christmas Pudding Bag

For Darwell, the whole affair has descended into a turdy farce with no behavioral logic.

“I photographed the same dog shit bag twice, a year apart and it still hangs in exactly the same place! There is a move to encourage people to use biodegradable poop bags. So the owner bags the poop then hangs it in the tree, the bag biodegrades and the poop falls to the ground where it was originally. Do you then re-bag the poop? The more you think about it the more insane it becomes.”

Even “dog wardens” in Darwell’s local park haven’t been able to curb the madness.

“They watch dog walkers through binoculars to make sure they bag the poop … but they don’t watch what then happens to the bag.”

Flinging bags of poo tends to be something dog owners try to do unobserved. For all his poop stalking, Darwell has only once witnessed a dog owner chuck a bag away, and it wasn’t the type of person you’d expect. “It was a little old lady,” says Darwell. “She chucked it in the river! I was gobsmacked.”

On that occasion the log floated out of sight and out of mind, but another time Darwell spotted a bobbing bagged doo-doo and chased it down. It was like that plastic bag scene from American Beauty but instead of airborne, Darwell’s polyethylene muse was half-submerged and struggling to keep its turtle head above the surface. “I was amazed it floated,” he says.

Dog Poo Bag By Bridge

Twin Bags

UK citizens aren’t the only ones walking alongside their four-legged friends straight into a canine-gut-stew-terror. On an Australian beach, Darwell found himself surrounded with yellow dog poo bags. In Germany, the bags are red, but you see fewer of them, as the Germans provide more bins, says Darwell, who has extended his stool survey internationally.

The British are, on available evidence, a resourceful bunch using any plastic sheaths they have at hand — nappy bags, shopping bags, etc. But for Darwell, all of this is just doubling the problem, not containing it. He wonders if leaving it to biodegrade might be a better solution. “Yes, I know there are, or can be, serious health implications, but then the poo would disappear in a matter of days,” he says.

This universality of bagging and discarding hit home when a magazine editor in Seattle asked Darwell to stop by his office to discuss his pictures. The editor was amazed to find out Darwell was from England — he thought he recognized the bags from his local park.

Home or away, DDSB has clearly struck a chord with folk. Laughably, often it is a conversation starter for Darwell.

“It’s amazing how many people now say, ‘John, I saw a dog shit bag yesterday and immediately thought of you.’”

Darwell has pinched this particular series off but his fecal fascination has not entirely run its course. He may follow through with a different angle.

“I notice a lot of people walking along with the tell-tale bag hanging from their hands vainly looking for a bin to dispose of the offending item,” says Darwell. “I’ve toyed with the idea of developing a new body of work of portraits of people carrying bags.”

The book DDSBs is now available through mynewtpress in signed and numbered limited editions.

John Darwell was part of the group show Confined (2011) at Bluecoats Gallery in Liverpool, the catalogue for which I wrote the foreword.

Hanging Yellow Bag Magenta Dog Poo Bag

Back Alleyway Bag

All images: John Darwell

© Aaron Lavinsky

PREAMBLE

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.

© Aaron Lavinsky

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.

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

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.

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

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.

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

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.

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

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

BIOGRAPHY

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.

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Over a period of three months, Italian photographer Gaetano Pezzella (Flickr) went inside of Rome’s infamous Rebibbia Prison and made portraits unlike portraiture those we are accustomed to seeing. With bright colors, strong graphic considerations, stark light, diverse posture and proximity it ends up a mixed bag. Some images look lije magazine head shots, others fashion shoots. Some are soft of the moment and momentous, but others are less precious. All-in-all its intriguing.

Recently, Pezzella put out a 144-page book of the work which includes 150 color images accompanied by ten stories by five writers, Pezzella penned two of the stories. The series and the book are titled Hotel Rebibbia. I wanted to know more about Pezzella’s approach so we had a conversation. Before we get into the Q&A though, a little background on Rebibbia Prison.

CONTEXT

Rebibbia prison is actually four facilities (3 mens, 1 womens) and it is one of Italy’s biggest prison complexes. Rebibbia has been in the news recently as a site of colourful protest, designer-clock and haute couture manufacture. Compared to other prisons, Rebibbia has a fair number of programs for prisoner education, rehabilitation and jobs training. It also boasts a thriving drama program lead by theater director Fabio Cavalli which spurred the part drama/part documentary hit movie Caesar Must Die (2012). As far as photography goes, Luca Ferrari has shot in the mens prisons and Melania Comoretto has shot in the women’s prison.

Scroll down for the Q&A.

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Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about Hotel Rebibbia.

Gaetano Pezzella (GP): Initially, I wanted to dedicate myself exclusively to the places, objects and symbols of the everyday life in a cell. I absolutely did not want to photograph people, especially their hands and arms through the bars and cliches like that. But from the beginning, being emotionally and physically involved with the prisoners, the work took different paths.

PP: Who are the prisoners in ‘Hotel Rebibbia’?

GP: The detainees are mainly common prisoners, who are serving sentences for crimes administrative and criminal. From possession and dealing of drugs, robbery and murder, conspiracy offenses, mafia and terrorism, up to crimes of a sexual nature, pedophilia, rape.

PP: Who is the audience for the work?

GP: The target audience is primarily institutional. From the judiciary to the Ministry of Justice. But it is also relevant to the world of voluntary associations, and I hope, political groups also. At the moment, there is a political current that is very sensitive to prison issues. Of course, we hope that the book is read by civil society to it may bring prisons issue to the a wider audience.

PP: What are you trying to say with the work?

GP: It was my intention to be delicate and light, and allow images to leave the humanity of those detained in place. [To show] their joy, their desire to live, their need to play, whatever their existential condition. To show them as human beings and not prisoners.

PP: Why is that necessary?

GP: Literature and photography on prisons are full of crude and violent images, which too often lead the observer to judge. People conclude that barbarous institutions are acceptable. Some people believes the prison to be today a kind of holiday and wish for tougher penalties. Hence the ironic title “Hotel Rebibbia.”

PP: How did you get access to into Rebibbia?

GP: The bureaucratic process was quite simple. I presented the project to the prison director who accepted it and then the prison’s secretariat forwarded my application to the Ministry of Justice for approval. Unfortunately, a few months ago, a new law passed which which greatly limits the possibility to make reportage inside Italy’s prisons.

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PP: What is the reputation of Rebibbia among people in Italy, and people in Rome?

GP: There’s a large part of the population, in Italy as in Rome, that would like prisons and penalties tougher. Rebibbia prison is, along with a few others in Italy, relatively modern in the sense that prisoners participate in treatment programs. There are theater, music, handicrafts and workplace specialization programs.

The crisis of the Italian prison system is its overcrowding. The prison population is over 65,000, but it is only designed to hold 35,000. From this statistic, we can appreciate the state of abandonment and deterioration of prisons in Italy. Being one of the largest prisons in Italy, Rebibbia suffers all problems associated with overcrowding.

When the problem is pointed out to Italians, the prison problem is often met with annoyance and suspicion — as something to be kept as far as possible. Marginalize it, denying the reality of the problem. The prison is seen as a foreign body to society. Even those who work in these facilities, educators, doctors, psychologists, employees, are viewed with skepticism and detachment, if not perceived, as second-class workers.

Added to this, there is also a large part of political activity which focuses on the security of the citizens. This electoral program has instilling uncertainty and fear in peoples’ minds, and that has translated as a tightening of the penalties which have filled the places of detention.


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PP: What did the prisoners think of you photographing inside?

I started photographing inside the sex offender ward which is isolated from other prisoners. They have little chance to make treatment programs [in other areas of the prison] so they were very excited to have the opportunity for any type of exchange with the outside world.

The sex offender ward was also my testing ground. Overcoming the difficulties of making a professional but friendly relationship there helped me, later, do my job inside other parts of the prison.

My plan to make pictures of the interior of the cells, soon proved impossible due to the positive involvement of prisoners. Every time I entered in cells or common areas, it became a kind of collective game. I did not have to work hard to be able to make photos. To the contrary.

PP: Did you give the prisoners prints?

GP: Yes, of course. The same prisoners asked me to make pictures to give to their loved ones. It was part of our collective game.

PP: What did the staff think of your work?

GP: I have to say that the entire staff, including the prison guards, were discrete and collaborative making it easier for me to do my work.

PP: You’ve worked in other prisons. Do you like working in prisons?

GP: After working in Rebibbia, I made reportage in Sardinia’s penal colony ‘Mamone.’ I am currently working, along with another photographer, on a project in the women’s prison in Rome.

Work in prisons has always been something special. The first time I entered a prison with a camera, I realized that I had much to learn. Initially, I believed that human relations could be, in some way, influenced by environment. Here I was, a free man, dealing with persons deprived of liberty. This could create, so I thought, a detachment. But I was wrong. We were equal. I do not care about knowing what sins they’ve committed; I’m not a judge, and I was not there for that. I just want to show to those outside that inside the prison there are people who live their lives despite it all.

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PP: Some of the portraits look like fashion shoots. Did you direct the subjects in their poses?

GP: I started with taking souvenir photos for prisoners to give to their loved ones Then, I asked them to take pictures for me. So I directed them, a little, but never forced the situation. They were free to present themselves in a very natural way. I only chose the location, where it was possible, and the best light. Only in rare cases I used a flash.

PP: How does this prison work fit in with the other photography you make?

GP: I do not think there is differentiation. Of course, life in prison is very hard, especially on a psychological level, and therefore, the approach to this reality is different to photographing portraits of musicians. In prison, you are pressed for time and you have a responsibility to show a difficult reality. Prison photography requires greater discretion so as not to offend those who are forced to live in a place with no freedom.

PP: Do Italian tax-payers get there money’s worth from prisons? Do Italy’s prisons punish or rehabilitate?

GP: It is written in our constitution that the prison should not be a place of punishment but of rehabilitation. Unfortunately, it is not always true. Sure, compared to many years ago, things have improved.

Today, prisoners have access to a range of measures that lighten the weight of detention — such as improved access (depending on the conduct and length of sentence), discounts and alternative measures, day release, and the ability to conduct conversations with family members in picnic areas instead of in anonymous and gray visiting rooms.

Furthermore, social, educational and recreational activities are available. Unfortunately, due to overcrowding it is difficult to ensure to all have access to such activities. Still, in the consciousness of many, a prison is thought of merely as a place of social revenge.

PP: Thanks, Gaetano.

GP: Thank you, Pete.

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Photographs © Inside View  Guernsey 2013. Courtesy of Jean-Christophe Godet

Cameras needn’t always be a security tool. And, in the hands of prisoners, they needn’t be a security hazard. I’m always encouraged to find photo-education-projects in prisons that nurture storytelling skills of prisoners. Therefore, the Inside View project in Guernsey, a Channel Island in Europe, is cause for interrogation.

CONTEXT

I’ve written about the history of photography workshops in prisons, but let me offer a quick re-cap. Except for photo workshops in New York in the 1970s to Washington D.C. in the 1980s no other photography classes that I know of have existed in male adult prisoners in the U.S. None occur today.

Internationally, programs in Columbia, Romania and Switzerland prove the model exists. In U.S. juvenile facilities photo education has operated in Washington State and currently exists in New Mexico and Rhode Island. Generally, we can say that these isolated examples are the exception rather than the rule.

A SIGNIFICANT PROGRAM

Given the paucity of photo-workshops, current and ongoing programs such Inside View are noteworthy, and Inside View might even be a program from which we can learn. It could be replicated! Inside View is the brain child of Jean-Christophe Godet, who also happens to be the Director of the Guernsey Photography Festival.

“Designed to help the participants acquire new technical and social skills, a sense of responsibility, a better understanding of themselves and a greater awareness of the environment in which they live in,” reads the press release, the Inside View project gives prisoners access to equipment and teaches them technical skills.

Inside View started at the end of 2010 with workshops taking place each week over six months. To date, three workshops have taken place, always discussing the importance of objectivity and integrity in creating a documentary.

Photographs © Inside View  Guernsey 2013. Courtesy of Jean-Christophe Godet

“The thing I can’t get my head round is that these teachers trust us,” says one prisoner-participant in the same press release. “They respect us and give us well expensive kit to hold and to use. The cameras belong to them and it feels good to be given the responsibility to be trusted with their precious cameras. I will always have the camera round my neck, I will teach my children to look after their things and to respect kit”

“I like it when this gives us a chance to show the outside that we don’t live in a 5* hotel,” reflect a another participant. “We are told when to eat, when to exercise, and we see doors but cant open them. I think that our pictures have captured the essence of what it is to lose your freedom. That’s why our photos are so good”

The assistance of the Governor and prison officers was essential for Inside View to play out, with Officers Dave White and Belinda Help at the sharp end of negotiating the exemplary project.

David Matthews, Guernsey Prisons Governor says, “It is important that prisoners can learn technical and life skills whilst in custody, these new skills can help in reducing offending behaviour and aid resettlement. There is a marked difference in behaviour and attitude when prisoners are exposed to these types of activities.”

Photographs © Inside View  Guernsey 2013. Courtesy of Jean-Christophe Godet

LESSONS LEARNT

Let’s be clear, the Channel Island of Guernsey is quite different to the U.S., or anywhere else for that matter. It is a province with a population of only 65,000. It has a single prison — The Guernsey Prison — with only 122 prisoners. For the sake of comparison, that’s 0.005% of the U.S. prison population which stands at 2.3 million.

If we wanted to imagine a similar program taking grip in the American prison industrial complex, we’d have to deal with massive issues of scale and the inconveniences they cause. Nevertheless, the point is made, photography can be a voice for prisoners — to facilitate that there only need be the resources, the will of any given administration, and systems of political and security that are less interested in covering their ass than they are in delivering rehabilitation.

To find out exactly how the program came about, I asked Inside View coordinator Jean-Christophe Godet a few questions.

Prison Photography (PP): Where did the idea to put cameras in the hands of prisoners come from?

JCG: Inside View was inspired by a similar project organised by a collective of photographers “FrameZero” at the Wandsworth Prison in London in the late 90’s. The project was run by Jason Shenaï.

PP: You worked with the Guernsey prison services. How did you negotiate that?

JCG: It took almost three very long years of negotiation. My first letters and emails were simply ignored. I finally met Wendy Meade by chance (she came to one of my photography courses) who told me that she was a prison visitor. I took the opportunity to talk to her about my project. She then introduced me to a Deputy Governor who gave me an opportunity to explain in details what I was trying to achieve.

PP: Who is Wendy Meade?

JCG: Wendy is part of The Panel of Prison Visitors comprised of six volunteers, at present appointed by the Policy Council. They are an independent body authorised by the 1998 Prison Administration (Guernsey) Ordinance to pay frequent visits to the prison at any time of day or night. At least two members are required to visit at least once a month.

PP: What were the prisoners’ reaction to the project?

JCG: I think they didn’t know what to expect first. They took the opportunity to join the group as they had nothing else to do..

Very quickly they started to get more and more involved. The course now is completely oversubscribed with a long waiting list. One of the first reactions that I always get is, “What do you want us to photograph? There is nothing interesting here.” I see my role as teaching them to see and look in a different way.

Photographs © Inside View  Guernsey 2013. Courtesy of Jean-Christophe Godet

Photographs © Inside View  Guernsey 2013. Courtesy of Jean-Christophe Godet

Photographs © Inside View  Guernsey 2013. Courtesy of Jean-Christophe Godet

PP: What was the staff’s reaction to the project?

JCG: The course created lots of challenges for the staff as I didn’t want to stay inside the classroom. I needed to have access to every single corner of the prison. In this special environment having a group of prisoners walking around with cameras on hands is obviously a logistical nightmare. The administration finally came up with an idea of having a dedicated security officer who walks around with us everywhere.

I have a great respect for the staff. Their job is not easy and can be very stressful but their attitude has always supportive and helpful. There is nothing we can do without their help so it was important to gain a level of trust but also share some understanding.

PP: You made over 2,000 pictures for the third iteration of the project and edited those down to 40 for the exhibition. Can you tell me about the editing process?

JCG: We did a couple of sessions with the prisoners where we looked at the photos and decided which ones worked best and why. We didn’t have access to computer inside the prison so I processed all the photos in my studio and did the final editing.

My hope is to give prisoners a way to express themselves, building their self-esteem and reaching a sense of achievement and proud in what they managed to produce. I occasionally meet some of them whose been released. When they tell me that they are still taking photos or saving to buy a new camera, it makes my day.

PP: Thanks Jean-Christophe

JCG: Thank you, Pete.

Photographs © Inside View  Guernsey 2013. Courtesy of Jean-Christophe Godet

Photographs © Inside View  Guernsey 2013. Courtesy of Jean-Christophe Godet

Photographs © Inside View  Guernsey 2013. Courtesy of Jean-Christophe Godet

    Photographs © Inside View  Guernsey 2013. Courtesy of Jean-Christophe Godet

Photographs © Inside View  Guernsey 2013. Courtesy of Jean-Christophe Godet

EXHIBITION

Presented by the Guernsey Prison in collaboration with the Guernsey Photography Festival, Inside View was first exhibited in November 2013, at the Guernsey Prison Visitors Centre. Inside View is on show from 20th of March – 4th April 2014, at the Gatehouse Gallery, Elizabeth College, The Grange, St Peter Port, Guernsey GY1 2PY

AWARD

Inside View was awarded the Koestler Trust’s William Archer Platinum Award for photography, which attracts more than 5,000 entries from offenders across the UK. The Trust promotes the arts in special institutions, encouraging creativity and the acquisition of new skills as a means to rehabilitation.

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Artist Jesse Krimes stands in front of his 39-panel mural Apokaluptein:16389067 (federal prison bed sheets, transferred New York Times images, color pencil) installed, here, at the Olivet Church Artist Studios, Philadelphia. January, 2014.

The New York Times has a track record for high quality visual journalism. From experiments in multimedia, to its magazine’s double-truck features; from its backstage reportage at the swankiest fashion gigs, to their man in town Bill Cunningham. Big reputation.

NYT photographs are viewed and used in an myriad of ways. Even so, I doubt the editors ever thought their choices would be burnished from the news-pages onto prison bed-sheets with a plastic spoon. Nor that the transfer agent would be prison-issue hair gel.

In 2009, Jesse Krimes (yep, that’s his real surname) was sentenced to 70 months in a federal penitentiary for cocaine possession and intent to distribute. He was caught with 140 grams. The charges brought were those of 50-150 kilos. Somewhere in the bargaining it was knocked down to 500 grams, and Krimes plead guilty to conspiracy. The judge recommended that Jesse be sent to a minimum security prison in New Jersey, close to support network of friends and family, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) opted to send him to a medium security facility in Butner, North Carolina — as far away as permitted under BOP regulations. That was the first punitive step of many in a system that Krimes says is meant first and foremost to dehumanise.

“Doing this was a way to fight back,” says Krimes who believes ardently that art humanises. “The system is designed to make you into a criminal and make you conform. I beat the system.”

Last month, I had the pleasure of hearing Krimes speak about his mammoth artwork Apokaluptein:16389067 during an evening hosted at the the Eastern State Penitentiary and Olivet Church Artist Studios in Philadelphia.

The mural took three years to make and it is a meditation on heaven, hell, sin, redemption, celebrity worship, deprivation and the nature of perceived reality. Krimes says his “entire experience” of prison is tied up in the artwork.

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In the top-left is a transferred photo of a rehearsal of the Passion play at Angola Prison, Louisiana.

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Through trial and error, Krimes discovered that he could transfer images from New York Times newspapers on to prison bedsheets. At first he used water, but the colours bled. Hair gel had the requisite viscosity. As a result, all imagery is reversed, upturned. Apokaluptein:16389067 is both destruction and creation.

“It’s a depiction of represented reality as it exists in its mediated form, within the fabric of the prison,” says Krimes. “It was my attempt to transfer [outside] reality into prison and then later became my escape when I sent a piece home with the hopes that it could be my voice on the outside in the event that anything bad ever happened and I never made it home.”

ART AS SURVIVAL

Krimes says this long term project kept him sane, focused and disciplined.

Each transfer took 30-minutes. Thousands make up the mural. Krimes only worked on one sheet at a time, each of them matching the size of the tabletop he worked on. A notch in the table marked the horizon line for the 13 panels making up the center horizontal. He shipped them home. Not until his release did he see them together.

The enterprise was not without its risks, but Krimes found favour being a man with artistic talent. He established art classes for fellow prisoners in an institution that was devoid of meaningful programs.

“Prisoners did all the work to set up the class,” says Krimes.

Once the class was in place, guards appreciated the initiative. It even changed for the better some of the relationships he had with staff.

“Some helped mail out sections,” he says of the bedsheets which were, strictly-speaking, contraband.

Krimes would cut sections from the New York Times and its supplements, sometimes paying other prisoners for the privilege.

“In prison, the only experience of the outside world is through the media.”

The horizon is made of images from the travel section. Beneath the horizon are transferred images of war, and man-made and natural disasters. Krimes noticed that often coverage of disasters and idealised travel destinations came from the same coasts and continents. Influenced by Dante’s Inferno and by Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, Krimes reinvigorates notions of the Trinity within modern politics and economics. The three tiers of the mural reflect, he says heaven, earth and hell, or intellect, mind and body.

One can identify the largest victories, struggles and crimes of the contemporary world. All in perverse reverse. All in washed out collage. There’s images of the passion play being rehearsed at Angola Prison from an NYT feature, of Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolution, of children in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook School massacre, and of a submerged rollercoaster in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

The women’s rights panel includes news images from reporting on the India bus rape and images of Aesha Mohammadzai who was the victim of a brutal attack by her then husband who cut off her nose. Krimes’ compression of images is vertiginous and disorienting. We’re reminded that the world as it appears through our newspapers sometimes is.

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The large pictures are almost exclusively J.Crew adverts which often fill the entire rear page of the NYT. Jenna Lyons, the creative director at J.Crew is cast as a non-too-playful devil imp in the center-bottom panel.

Throughout, fairies transferred straight from ballerinas bodies as depicted in the Arts Section dance and weave. Depending on where they exist in relation to heaven and earth they are afforded heads or not — blank geometries replace faces as to comment on the treatment of women in mainstream media.

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The title Apokaluptein:16389067 derives from the Greek root ‘apokalupsis.’ Apokaluptein means to uncover, or reveal. 16389067 was Krimes’ Federal Bureau of Prisons identification number.

“The origin [of the word] speaks to the material choice of the prison sheet as the skin of the prison, that is literally used to cover and hide the body of the prisoner. Apokaluptein:16389067 reverses the sheet’s use and opens up the ability to have a conversation about the sheet as a material which, here, serves to uncover and reveal the prison system,” says Krimes who also read into the word personal meaning.

“The contemporary translation speaks to a type of personal apocalypse – the process of incarceration and the dehumanizing deterioration of ones personal identity, [...] The number itself, representing the replacement of ones name.”

PRISON ECONOMICS: THE HAVES & HAVE NOTS

One of the most interesting things to hear about at Krimes’ presentation was the particular details about how he went about acquiring materials. In federal prison, just as on the outside, money rules. Except inside BOP facilities the currency is stamps not dollars (something we’ve heard before). A $7 book of stamps on the outside, sets a prisoner back $9.

Access to money makes a huge difference in how one experiences imprisonment.

“People who have money have a much easier time living in prison but that is usually rare except for the white collar guys or the large organized crime figures,” says Krimes. 

“Prisoners who have money in prison gain automatic respect and power because you are able to have influence over anything really — most people without money will depend on those with cash to be the buyers of whatever products or services they need.”

Without cash to hand, a rare skill comes in handy. Krimes could make art. In prison artists are afforded much respect. Ironically, free society doesn’t treat artists with the same respect, but I guess we’ve already established that we’re dealing in reversals here?!

“We had to provide some kind of skill or service in order to receive money or books of stamps. Some people cook for others, do laundry, do legal work, or artwork.”

In FCI Butner, a high-quality photorealistic portrait would go for as much as $150. Or, 20 books of stamps. Krimes did portraits and tattoo designs, spending proceeds almost exclusively on hair gel and coloured pencils.

“The majority of portraits I did were for the guys who had money or else I did them for free, for friends or those going through hard times.”

The prison sheets came for free. Krimes smiles at the irony that these sheets are made by UNICOR, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ factory and industries arm. UNICOR makes everything from steel frame beds to bedsheets; from U.S. military boots and helmets to plastic utensils. In 2005, UNICOR generated $765 million in sales – 74% of revenues went toward the purchase of raw material and equipment; 20% toward staff salaries; and 6% went toward inmate salaries.

I’d liken Krimes’ acquisition of bed sheets to liberation more than to theft. His image transfers are appropriation more than homage. The scope of the project reflects the sheer size of American prison system. The ambition reflects that of the individual to survive, not the system to improve its wards.

That such a large statement came out of the prison sytem (in one piece!) is a feat in itself. That Apokaluptein:16389067 is so layered and so plugged into contemporary culture is an absolute marvel. That the photographs of international media are the vehicle for that statement should be no surprise at all.

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More here.

All images: Sarah Kaufman

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One of the cardboard boxes in which Krimes shipped out a completed panel. The boxes are made by the federal prison industries group UNICOR which employs prison labour. The box is marked with “ESCAPE PROOF GUARANTEED.”

G-LAW Michael Ta'Bon

Today, the Huffington Post published 31 Reasons Philadelphia Is The Most Underrated City in America. Having spent two weeks in Philly recently, I can’t argue with most points (veggie friendly baseball park, c’mon!?).

But I can go further. Allow me to add a 32nd reason. Philadelphia’s anti-prison artists and activists.

Case in point: G-LAW. G-LAW, or OG-LAW (God’s Love Always Wins/God’s Love AT Work) is the adopted name of Michael Ta’Bon, an artist and activist who’s message is peace, love and no more prisons.

For the month of February, G-LAW lived in a self-built cell-sized space on the streets of Philly. Lori Waselchuk and  I visited G-LAW on the first of the month to see how he was going with construction, buy a coffee and learn more about his project. These photos are from that day. I have not heard how the past four weeks have gone, but as with all of G-LAW’s public happenings, I am sure he’s raised a lot of eyebrows and a lot of discussions.

This isn’t the first time G-LAW has protested prison construction, poverty, inequality and hate. He has jogged 10 miles a day for seven days around Philadelphia with a 40-foot banner reading FIGHT HATE WITH LOVE; he has walked with a ball-and-chain from Selma to Montgomery; and this is, in fact, the third time he’s  spent the month of February on the Philly streets in his own prison cell. You can see coverage of the the first occasion in 2011 here and here. One year, he mounted the event in Atlanta.

G-LAW Michael Ta'Bon

G-LAW Michael Ta'Bon

G-LAW Michael Ta'Bon


“JAIL IS 4 SUCKAZ!”
 is one of G-LAW’s many tags lines. He means everyone. He means you. Taxpayers are suckers for stumping the bill to maintain abusive and broken prison systems. One side of his cell is emblazoned with the phrase.

The project as a whole is called The Un-Prison Cell. It’s “the only prison in America designed to keep you out,” laughed G-LAW. It sounds like progress on construction slowed in the days after I visited, due to vicious weather and troubles getting materials.

G-LAW was also away from the site on February 12th as he joined the monumental People’s Budget Hearing protest at the Pennsylvania capital building in Harrisburg (videoaudiophotos). The People’s Hearing was organised by DecarceratePA, one of the most effective and inspiring anti-prison activist groups in the nation. Don’t believe me? Listen to DecarceratePA member Sarah Morris debate PA Prisons Secretary John Wetzel and call him out on the misinformation peddled by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to the state legislature justify proposed prison expansion.

It was through DecarceratePA that I learnt about G-LAW’s art — you can listen to him on their radio show.

Maintaining momentum against massive forces for grassroots movements is a constant effort. A large part of that is being relevant to people outside the choir, having press strategy and adopting visual strategy too. DecarceratePA’s 100-day #InsteadOfPrisons Instagram campaign was the first and only interesting anti-prison campaign use of Instagram I’ve seen. (I adopted the hashtag myself later to spread the words of PA prisoners who’s work was in Prison Obscura.) Also, look how incredible this visual statement is.

Philadelphia should be proud of its grassroots activism. Bravo. More.

Follow G-LAW. Follow DecarceratePA on Facebook and on Twitter and on Instagram.

Thanks to Lori for some images.

G-LAW Michael Ta'Bon

G-LAW

G-LAW Michael Ta'Bon

G-LAW Michael Ta'Bon

G-LAW Michael Ta'Bon

Miley Twerk

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.

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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.

Firstly, I wasn’t aware of Warren’s practice; even though she has a Wikipedia page and a long history with VICE, I had not come across Warren’s work before. I am glad I did.

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.

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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.

Impressive.

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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.

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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.

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BAUM AWARD

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.

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