LAT

Prison Obscura got a nice review by Carolina Miranda in the Los Angeles Times.

An excerpt from Gut-wrenching photo evidence from Brown vs. Plata in ‘Prison Obscura’:

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.

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FERGUSON

The unrest has abated in Ferguson. The quest for justice has not.

As I watched events unfold last month, I did not at any point feel I had something to add to the news coverage or commentary. I am still not convinced I do. That said, when the very soul of America is at stake, when the life of a young man has been taken, when the police turn up in military get-up, and when all this is being played out in front of the world’s media, I was aware questions needed to be asked of media-makers.

I take this opportunity not to make statements but to ask questions.

Barrett Emke, a young photographer from Kansas, was kind enough to share his photographs from Ferguson with me. He allowed me to make an edit. I publish them here alongside a short Q&A.

These are questions I’m just putting down in digital ink now, but probably come from weeks of thinking in circles. I was not brave or knowledgeable enough to write anything about Ferguson or its people when events were most immediate and raw; when people protested peacefully and faced off with law enforcement.

I want to start finding out about what photography did for the people of Ferguson and what it might do for them in the future. What might it do, or not do, for other communities wracked by racial inequities?

Barrett was in Ferguson August 19-21, I am penning this mid-September, but we know that from the tragedy of Michael Brown’s murder and from the town’s outrage must come long-term positive leaps forward; must come an accelerated and enlightened path to justice for us all as one.

Scroll down for the Q&A.

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Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): Why did you go to Ferguson?

Barrett Emke (BE): I live in Kansas City, so the events in Ferguson definitely felt close to home. As a photographer and a person, I felt I had somewhat of a duty to go there and experience what was happening firsthand – this piece of history and injustice, and the community’s response.

I had to do something other than just watch what was happening on the news or read about it on the internet; maybe my photographs wouldn’t be seen by anyone or make any difference, but at least I would be there to document a piece of it.

PP: Did you know what you wanted to do beforehand?

BE: Not really. I just dove into the situation and worked intuitively, gauging the events as they came. From the first day I got there I had a rough idea that I wanted to make pictures of as many people as I could.

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PP: What does it feel like to have tank in the street?

BE: It was a little overwhelming at first, but you acclimate quickly.

PP: On your website you’ve presented a wider edit with B&W images, pictures of law enforcement who are in action or stationary.

I’m not that interested in your distant (usually nighttime) images of cops. They seem to break up the warmth that maintains throughout the portraits of Ferguson residents. Does that make sense?

BE: I can see that. Obviously, the images of the militarized police, and the tear gassing, and all of that are everywhere now, and I knew that I wasn’t going to do that. But the images I did include I feel have their place in the sequence – I think of them more as portraits of the officers who were part of the situation as well.

PP: How did you feel when your were in Ferguson?

BE: Honestly, I felt human.

The people I interacted with and photographed were open, genuine, and earnest. Beyond the conflicts and the clashes between protestors and police, I definitely felt a strong sense of community and humanity present there, among those who lived in Ferguson and others who had traveled from elsewhere to be there.

PP: How do you think your feelings compare with residents?

BE: It’s hard to say. Many people who I spoke with and photographed were totally willing to engage with me – in times of crisis, that sort of social barrier kind of breaks down. At the same time, I definitely heard residents express their anger and a certain distrust toward the media, this sentiment that after the spectacle has ended, their lives in Ferguson go on.

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PP: What was the behavior of the media like in Ferguson?

BE: I think the presence of the media was essential, to record and broadcast what was happening. At the same time, it became a little gross to the see the camera crews flocking to and descending upon every little scrap of conflict each night, trying to get the scoop. It definitely seemed vulture-like at certain moments, and there were instances in which I felt like the media’s presence was exacerbating the situation.

There were times when interactions between protestors, police, and the media became problematic, with the media fanning the flames a bit. I’m not sure what the alternative would have been; if the media hadn’t been there reporting, would the militarized aggression of the police have only escalated? Would Michael Brown’s story and its larger implications have been told?

PP: How did people react to you photographing?

BE: Generally, people were receptive to me photographing. I tried to be as respectful and sensitive to the situation and individuals as possible.

PP: What did Ferguson residents think generally about the media and/or photographers?

BE: There was a certain ambivalence about the media that I picked up on. As I mentioned previously, I heard the sentiment echoed that once the media circus had skipped town, the residents still had to go on about their lives and their realities. But at the same time, I heard many people express that the situation would be worse between protestors and the police if the media wasn’t there to report on what was happening, and to check that militarized aggression.

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PP: What was the overall sentiment of the people you photographed?

BE: People were there on West Florissant in solidarity and were fed up with everything that had led to this point. Those I photographed were resolute in their anger and sought justice for Michael Brown, meaning the indictment of Darren Wilson and a major shift in policy, representation, and attitudes going forward. What I heard echoed again and again from people was that this situation wasn’t just about race, it was also a human thing. Beyond that, I perceived an overwhelming amount of positivity and hope from the individuals I met.

PP: Did this sentiment match that of the media generally?

BE: As in, did the media share the same drive for justice as the residents and protestors? I’m not sure, but I would say that they seemed to be there to do their job, which was reporting.

PP: Is America a racist country? I’m not being incendiary here; it actually seems like a fair question if we consider this excerpt from this New Yorker piece The Color of Justice:

Whites support tougher criminal laws at least partly because they overestimate black and Hispanic crime rates. Blacks and Hispanics do commit certain crimes more frequently, per capita, than whites, but not all. But whites consistently overestimate the difference, according to one study, by as much as twenty to thirty per cent. That perception affects attitudes toward offenders and sentencing. Studies show that the more whites attribute higher crime rates to blacks and Hispanics, the more likely they are to support harsh criminal laws. It is less that they are consciously seeking to subordinate racial minorities than that they fail to treat the negative consequences of high incarceration rates as their problem. As the report explains, “attributing crime to racial minorities limits empathy toward offenders and encourages retribution.”

This is a damning indictment. If anyone were to admit that they preferred the death penalty, life without parole, or harsh sentences because they believe the perpetrators of violent crimes are more likely to be black or Hispanic, we would immediately condemn them as the worst sort of racist. If a prosecutor, judge, or juror expressed such a sentiment, any resulting conviction or sentence would be swiftly overturned. No one admits that they feel this way, but the studies recounted by the Sentencing Project suggest that this is precisely what many white Americans feel.

BE: America is a racist country, with its long and complicated history of prejudice that it still cannot shake.

Racism in the United States is deeply entrenched and systemic, even today, as we’ve seen. As a white person, I have tried to be consistently aware of my privilege and the way racism can be internalized by someone who would never consider herself or himself “racist.” It is a process of learning and unlearning that I still grapple with. One can always do better, listen more. It is not enough to simply not be racist; one must be anti-racist.

When a person of color in America can’t be certain that she or he won’t be shot and killed during a routine encounter with police, or a total stranger, something is utterly, intrinsically wrong. I believe it is the duty of those who benefit from white privilege, male privilege, heteronormative privilege, to fight alongside those who are disenfranchised under the law and throughout society.

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PP: What did photography achieve during August for the messages coming out of Ferguson?

BE: I’ve seen an abundance of profound, earth shattering photographs come out of the events of Ferguson. I believe these photographs have been successful in demonstrating to the world what was unfolding and to preserve these moments as historical documents.

PP: Do photographers need to stay in, or return to, Ferguson soon? And/or often?

BE: Speaking for myself, I don’t feel like my work was simply done when I returned home. A situation like this is ongoing. Nothing is solved. There is still more work to be done, and I would like to return to make more photographs.

PP: Do you think that’s going to happen?

BE: I believe that to be committed and thorough in a situation like this, it has to be longterm.

PP: Thanks Barrett.

BE: Thank you, Pete.

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THE DRAMA INSIDE

For over 25 years, prisoners at Volterra Prison in Italy have been performing elaborate, ruffled, high heeled performances of classic theater. The Compagnia della Fortezza, under the directorship of Armando Punzo is now stuff of legend in Italy. Shakespeare, Brecht, Virgil as well as the work of national playwrights have been acted out inside the walls but in front of attending publics. The company has had some coverage outside of Italy, but not nearly enough according to filmmaker Inaya Graciana Yusuf.

She and her crew observed, documented and lived this past season at Volterra Prison. It was a transformative experience. “We became part of something intensively rewarding and beautiful. We forged new friendships, bonded and engaged in each other’s stories,” says Yusuf.

Now back on home soil, Yusuf wants to share the atmosphere of positive change, unexpected growth and group achievement through a documentary film named The One & The Many which follows the fortunes, preparations and final performance of a prisoner theater troupe as they deliver a Jean Genet work.

“The film will explore how deeply impactful theatre and arts programs can be forprisoners,” says Yusuf.

Yusuf looks forward to returning to Compagnia della Fortezza but her ability to do so depends on our help. Today, Yusuf and her production crew launched a Kickstarter to raise monies for the second round of filming (they spent the month of July in Volterra) and post-production, media management, editing, graphics, so on and so forth. I wish them luck. Prison theatre intrigues me. Without exception, prison theater productions deliver a different type of image — of course, that has a lot to do with the costume and the make up, but I think that the act of the act allows prisoners to explore new parts of personality. A good photograph can capture that even though masks and thick mascara.

I wanted to delve deeper and find out exactly what prison theater is and how it does what it does. Scroll down for a Q&A with Yusuf.

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Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Both yourself and the prisoners express great repeats for the director Armando. Can you describe briefly why his methods are so admirable and what aspects of his approach other prison theatre coordinators could learn from?

Inaya Graciana Yusuf (IGF): Armando is a progressive and stimulating individual. His mind is always going and in turn, his process is always evolving. He pushes boundaries and brings out something in you that you would otherwise never realize on your own. He essentially sees each individual as the person they are and not as a prisoner. Through encouragement he is able to bring out their best even humors them into embracing their flaws. Armando creates a balance.

I have learned about camaraderie and friendship through this tight-knit community. Everyone treats each other as equals, helping each other move forward with Armando’s guidance. I was able to understand that individual performances make up for the group’s performance collectively.

Armando always practices an open door policy. He welcomes opinions, criticism and direction because at an essential level, he is always inspired. Being able to supervise and influence, but equally empathetic and open minded are important abilities of leadership. So many other people facilitate programs and end up distancing themselves from developing human connection.

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PP: What is particular about drama and theater that makes it good for rehabilitation?

IGF: Theatre is a reflection of society. It is an inevitable reciprocity. It enables the mood of a certain [prison] community and mirrors different facets of life.

What significantly appealing about theatre is that it allows us to critically process civil life and the drama of the everyday. I think this goes back into the idea of dramaturgy and the role it plays in our personal and professional development. I have always been a fan of Erving Goffman, and I apply his theories into analyzing this idea of the multiple-self facilitated by the aspect of performance. Essentially we are all performers and what theatre can bring into rehabilitation programs is helping people understand how to utilize and integrate it with certain situations. Theatre provides us with wisdom, be it cultural, political or satirical of any kind. I think its perfect because you get to work on your social and presentation skills based on the role that eventually falls on your lap.

What theatre can do more than any other form is shift attitudes, articulate discontent and reflect the environment you are surrounded by.

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PP: What sort of productions and scripts really resonate with prison population best? What characters do prisoners enjoy playing the most? And why?

IGF: Armando always reminds everyone “It is not you who choose theatre, it is theatre that chooses you.” It is in a way, true. You can choose as many texts as you possibly want but eventually, there is only a few that will resonate and stick to you. The prisoner-actors actually mentioned this to me on numerous occasions. They enjoy the texts to which they are exposed to because they provide them with challenges to overcome. It is always about how does it relate to them personally and how can they express it. A few prisoners really connected with Mercuzio Non Deve Morrire and Hamlice a couple of years ago.

The texts they perform are all experimental, written and directed by Armando himself. He adapts them from existing classical and/or modern plays. I think this gives room for interpretation and personalization for all participating actors, which makes it more enticing and powerful upon completion. The method is that of psychodrama — it heavily relies on creativity, participation and spontaneity. The final performance is more or less personal and experiential for each audience that attends.

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PP: Have you seen the documentary 12 Angry Lebanese?

IGF: I have.

PP: It’s about a production of 12 Angry Men in a Lebanese prison. Overall, the show is a great success and actually brings about legislative change, but throughout the preparations, there’s stern words, positive reinforcement, mutual growth but also a main actor who drops out last minute — it was no smooth ride. How were the workshops, education and rehearsals for Santo Genet?

IGF: The rehearsals and education for Santo Genet were ongoing and they were trial and error.

More than anything, it is about knowing what is doable in a limited time. I have spoken to both Armando and the participants about this. Everything that is on the “idea book” will be tried and tested, what matters is, accepting that it has been tried and done. Everything is discussed openly in front of everyone. New ideas and interpretations will come up and old ones will die down. It is a cycle and more importantly it is a creative journey. I think what is crucial to understand that experimental theatre is based on spontaneity and improvisation.

Santo Genet is a great example of collaboration and teamwork. Armando, along with his collaborators, work extremely hard in putting together his vision. The prisoner-actors rehearse every day, either with each other or on their own, with or without supervision.

It is interesting that you say, “It was no smooth ride.” When is anything in such programs ever a smooth ride? Armando always works through the different challenges he faces daily, and it gives rise to some incredible outcomes. What Santo Genet rehearsals taught me is to always be ready for the unexpected. It may hit you from any direction, but it doesn’t mean that there is no solution.

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PP: There are several prison theater projects like the one you feature. Can you name some in the U.S. that you admire and/or have heard positive things about?

IGF: Yes, locally, I admire the work of Rehabilitation for The Arts, they are facilitators for art based programs inside Sing Sing prison here in New York. They do great work. I would recommend people with teaching experience to seek them out and work with them.

Other programs that have been inspiring to me is Prison Performing Arts in Missouri run by Agnes Wilcox, The Prison Arts Coalition run by Buzz Alexander in Michigan, and of course Shakespeare Behind Bars. Each of them has something unique to bring to the table, especially in terms of approach and programming.

PP: A silly question, perhaps not, but my readers would be interested. How do the prisoners feel about wearing eyeliner?

IGF: This is a very funny question and I am glad you asked.

The majority of the men enjoy dressing up, performing and using makeup. They are playful and many take pleasure in seeing transformation. I remember one prisoner asking me if I could do his makeup because he saw me with eyeliner. I explained that makeup was not my forte! These men are adept and capable of any adventure.

PP: Thanks Inaya

IGF: Thank you, Pete.

CASH MONIES

GO THROW SOME MONEY IN THE ONE & THE MANY KICKSTARTER BUCKET!

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Uncut-doom9lives

Even in the throes of addiction, Graham MacIndoe was able to take a relatively objective look at the visual culture of the drug trade. He collected more than 100 bags, in NYC, in which heroin was sold. 

When other addicts emptied these little baggies, and after they’d cooked and injected the contents, what did they see? Trash? Incriminating evidence? MacIndoe saw the anthropology and informal economics of dealing.

Now, four years clean, photographs of the bags are collected in a new book All In: Buying Into The Drug Trade (Little Big Man Books, San Francisco).

For Wired, I wrote about the series, MacIndoe’s story and his thoughts about what the baggies might mean for us all: The Dark, Ironic Branding Drug Dealers Use to Sell Heroin

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Marking Time

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?

BIOGRAPHIES

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.

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Christopher Onstott is a freelance photojournalist, photo editor, and videographer working out of his native Portland, Oregon. Before he turned to image-making, he bounced around in various jobs — most of the sales. He was once high-interest loan officer, pizza delivery boy and used-car salesman. At the age of 24, he took a leap of faith and signed up for a college photo program.

I may have left Portland, but I still have friends there and interviews in the can, so here is Christopher and I talking about PDX, rural Oregon, disaster kits, the grounding effect of portraiture, setting up a business, and specifically setting up a business with your love.

In summer of last year, Christopher went inside Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as part of the Oregon Project Dayshoot+30. Our discussion begins there. The two images (above and directly below) are from inside OSP. Other images included are from Christopher’s portfolio.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about your decision to shoot in Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).

CO: It was with Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 which was the 30 year anniversary of a day of photographing Oregon by 90 photographers back in 1983. I own the original book One Average Day and the images that stood out to me were the penitentiary photos. In between the usual ‘day in the life’ shots, vineyards, cattle and farmer photos were photographs of a guy in his cell smoking cigarettes.

PP: What was the intrigue?

CO: Prisoners are the under-represented group in Oregon. If you think of Oregonians, you don’t think of prisoners. But they’re residents here.

PP: There’s 14 or 15 thousand people in Oregon’s state prisons these days. Thousands more in county jails.

CO: The Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 was a good reason to get access to OSP which I wouldn’t usually get access to.

I contacted the public liaison office, told them about the project, sent them to the site, sent them a couple of photos of the book that I’d taken on my phone. “Here’s what they did 30 years ago, can I come and shoot?” essentially. They did a security background check and we set up a time. I had only an hour window to shoot. The rest of the day I photographed around Salem.

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CO: When I got to the prison, the gentleman I’d been emailing with was not the man I met. The man I’d been in communication with was off work sick. So, immediately there was this disconnect between what I’d asked for and what was being presented to me.

It wasn’t a good experience.

PP: How so?

CO: I wanted to photograph the residents of OSP with a documentary approach, in the vein of the original project. But, my escort’s perception was I wanted take an updated version of the photo from 30-years-ago!

He asked, “So, you want to take this picture?” as he pointed at a print-off of a camera-phone picture of a image in a book! He walked me to a cell, there were two prisoners. He told me I could only photograph one and he gave me 3 minutes. [Laughs]

PP: You had your own art director!

CO: “The image your holding is an example,” I said. “But let’s look at the whole penitentiary.” He said we were not cleared for that, because all the prisoners were about to move for count. There was no flexibility. My escort was accountable to his boss and he didn’t know what had been said before.

PP: What did the subject think about you photographing?

CO: He was totally okay with it. He thought it was cool. I got the impression he knew he was going to be photographed. He was on LWOP (Life Without Parole). Pretty docile.

PP: You think he’s seen the photograph?

CO: I don’t know. I emailed the prison a copy of the photograph in a thank you email.

PP: when you were in OSP, did you cover your tattoos up?

CO: I wore short sleeves. I don’t really think of myself as being tattooed.

PP: Believe me, the prisoners and staff noticed! Do you think there was more to be seen at OSP?

CO: Definitely, just walking in we passed so many people. There was activity and work details everywhere. I was eyeing pictures everywhere but I couldn’t take them. It’s an entire town in there, right? A cultural complex. There’s a million photographs to be made. But I was only to capture a very slim sliver of life.

Still it’s important that there’s at least a representation of prisoners as residents of Oregon 30 years from now.

Tire Swing, Alberta Steet, hipsters, portland, summer,

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PP: Shifting gears. You grew up in Oregon.

CO: Grew up in Portland, spent a year in Texas, went to college in Washington State, spent a year in Texas, worked for 4 years at the Spectrum and Daily News in St George, Utah. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather sucks five months out of the year.

PP: There’s lots of buzz about Portland, right now.

CO: Oregon really is two different states of mind.

You’ve got the Willamette Valley and the city of Portland and then you’ve got the rest of the state. The one area that doesn’t get attention is Southeastern Oregon. Not a lot of roads, no freeways, hardly a population density. Very rural.

PP: How do you characterize the Portland photo scene?

CO: I think it’s really supportive. We’ve got ASMP Oregon and Newspace. Photographers will move work back and forth and offer one another help. But, on the otherhand, there’s a lot of photographers, so it can be competitive at the same time.

PP: Journalism, editorial?

CO: Magazines. There’s a lot of international attention on the city so we’ve people coming here asking for images. Those stories tend to lean the way of food, style travel; not hardcore news stories. There’s no tornadoes or hurricanes here!

PP: Maybe an earthquake?

CO: I’ve got my 72-hr disaster kit and spare film ready [laughs].

PP: Have you always been a photographer?

CO: No. I’ve been pizza delivery driver. Worked in my dad’s automotive shop. I was a used car sales man for four years. I’ve been a high interest loan officer. I was a bartender for two years. When my father passed away in 2001, I inherited his camera and I was left with “What do I do now?”

My father always told me to be a salesman. But I couldn’t stomach earning a living by getting one over on people. I’d never been to college, so after he died. I decided to go back to college. I was a freshman at 24-years-old! I did Photojournalism at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.

I took a picture of a girl’s basketball game and they ran it big in the paper and that was me hooked. [laughs]

PP: What’s easier to sell? Photographs or used cars?

CO: They’re both really hard!

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PP: How do you feel about photography. Is it as bad as it’s often made out? Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty thinker.

CO: I think the glass is awesome. The fact you can wake in the morning, pick up a camera and go make a living. I don’t care if your shooting fashion or street photography or using your iPhone, you just have to make pictures. We’re a society that is devouring images.

PP: But a photographer still has to package and shape stories. Can’t just churn them out!?

CO: You still gotta be good. My degree was in visual rhetoric; saying something with an image. Manage that and you’ve accomplished something as a photographer. If you’re a one trick pony, then you’re not gonna last.

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PP: I recently met Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow recently.

CO: Randy was my mentor at Missouri Photo Workshop last year.

PP: They’re a couple. There’s a few photo couples out there.

CO: Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber.

PP: Two great photographers. Yourself and Leah Nash are a couple. Is there any element of professional competition between you two?

CO: The secret to being in a relationship with another photographer is to be open to criticism and not to take it personally. If you want to grow, take honest feedback from someone who knows you really well and how you operate.

Leah and I edit one another’s work and we don’t take it personally. There’s no relationship argument to be had over photographs.

We’ve agreed not be chasing the same jobs. We’ve formed a separate company, NashCO (Leah Nash & C. Onstott) outside of our own work stylistically that’s focused on corporate and commercial work.

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PP: What you working on now?

CO: Street photography. I’m carrying my camera everyday capturing people in moments.

I’ve been working on a personal project of portraits for 5-years now. Using my Hasselblad. It’s slower. Because when I was at the newspaper I was running around photographing people but not really meeting them, you know? I was encountering into people who … I wouldn’t say were marginalized … but they were people who wouldn’t normally be paid attention to by the news. I wanted to slow down.

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CO: In news you’re photographing people in the highest points of achievement in their life, or at the lowest points of their life. The big award, the win at the big race, or the battle with cancer. Most of the time, we’re overlooking the median, the mean of existence.

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CO: I want to give those everyday people and experiences some attention. In Nevada, New York, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California. Any time I travel, I try to make portraits.

Pick out the person who is trying not to be photographed and ask their name and their story. Often they reply, “Why me?” and my response is “Because you’re interesting.”

I’ve been the only photographer at some of the newspapers I’ve worked at. I was shooting car accidents, house fires and high school sports. My way to decompress from that is to take pictures that I wasn’t taking on the job.

PP: Instagram?

CO: Used to Instagram a lot. When I got my [digital] Leica I stopped posting on Instagram so much. I try to follow people who are making good pictures because I want to be inspired. I don’t want to see pictures of peoples kids.

PP: Where do you shoot?

CO: I’ve been shooting a lot around my neighborhood, the Alberta neighborhood, because it is a gentrified ghetto. There’s a lot of collision. Walk up Alberta or Killingsworth Streets and there’s a photograph every 10 metres. But here’s the hub of Portland’s gentrification.

PP: What else keeps your eye busy?

CO: Portland Squared. It’s a project that Leah started a couple of years ago. 50 photographers. one square mile divided up into fifty squares and you spend the day shooting a square and ASMP event. Last year, they did a bigger square. 2 x 2 miles and 70 photographers. for 24 hours.

PP: Whose work do you admire here in town?

Thom Boyd, Natalie Behring.

Jason Langer’s work blows my mind. Chris Hornbecker who did the Timbers billboards.

Beth Nakamura’s stuff is awesome; she’s just a kick-ass daily newspaper photographer. Her blog is great too.

PP: Anything else to add?

CO: Don’t move to Portland! There’s too many photographers here! [Laughs]

PP: Ha! Thanks, Christopher.

CO: Thank you, Pete.

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SOCIALS

Keep up with Christopher Onstott through his website, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Follow NashCO on Facebook, Vimeo and web and blog.

EYE ON PDX

Eye On PDX is an ongoing series of profiles of photographers based in Portland, Oregon. See past Eye On PDX profiles here and here.

selfie

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

Final Words is a book and traveling exhibition, featuring the final statements of the 515 prisoners executed by the state of Texas since 1982Final 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?!]

PROTEST

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.

 

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I moved from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco, California this past weekend.

Blake Andrews — everyone’s favourite photoblogger and Oregon resident — wanted answers.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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