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Pursuant to my recent conversation with Beth Nakamura, I feel it necessary to focus on particular aspect of Oregon’s prison system on which she and Bryan Denson reported. The Blue Room.

Inside the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) at Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Institution, Nakamura photographed the Blue Room, a space in which prisoners watch videos of nature. Nakamura’s photographs and Denson’s words is the first news reporting on this fringe behavioural management method.

Firstly, why does the Blue Room exist? Prisoners in solitary are completely deprived of nature. In the IMU at Snake River, they are locked in their cell for 23 hours and 20 minutes every day. Prisoners’ only time outside of their windowless cell is 40 minutes in a concrete pen with high walls and a metal grate between they and the sky. IMU, the hole, SHU, the cooler, the box, solitary, call it what you like, extreme isolation makes men mad. Solitary is psychological torture. Neuroscience proves as much. Solitary is deprivation made physical.

The working hypothesis of the Blue Room is that exposure to video recorded scenes of nature will calm prisoners. It began operation in April 2013.

Let’s just pause right there and consider what  is happening here. Let’s consider the carceral logic and policies from which the Blue Room has emerged. The state has decided to isolate prisoners in bare cells, with only artificial light, in a state of near total sensory deprivation, for 23 in every 24 hours. Let’s not speculate why prisoners are isolated; I’m less interested in what behaviours land a prisoner in the harshest custody conditions, and more interested in if and how those custody conditions improve or exacerbate existing problems and/or create new problems.

There are many employees of the state — such as Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU at Snake River — who acknowledge that solitary destroys one’s sense of self. In his article, Denson quotes Gilbertson:

“I’ve seen over the years how an inmate will come into the facility, and they’ll almost appear to be completely normal,” Gilbertson said. “After a phase of isolation, those guys – especially those guys with mental health issues – tend to decompensate. They break down and go a different route. And it brings out a whole different person in them.”

Nearly two-thirds of the 200+ men in Snake River’s IMU suffer moderate to severe mental illness. Solitary makes them more prone to violence.

In the past 25 years, states across the U.S. have built, staffed and populated Supermax prisons that specialise in abuse. Once in operation, even well-meaning employees and mental health care-givers can’t change the structure therein; their primary function is to limit the damage of the rigid, brutalising environment.

If we really wanted to provide prisoners with some nature, we could open a gate and let them go sit out in the yard for the afternoon! Put a window in their cell?! Give them exercise options beyond the standard “dog-pen.” But no. From within a carceral logic that says controlled bodies stay within the walls, ludicrous makeshift responses such as the Blue Room emerge.

When I first learned of the Blue Room’s existence, I immediately thought to the scene from the film A Clockwork Orange in which the character Alex has his eyes pinned open and is forced to view “scenes of ultra-violence.” The notion that psychological ills can be rectified by the sights and sounds of projected montages, for me, is the domain of fiction. What would Stanley Kubrick make of this private screening room? Or Anthony Burgess, for that matter? Would they conclude that Snake River prison is as dystopic as the near-future-Britain they created in novel and cinema?

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Film still, from A Clockwork Orange (1971), by Stanley Kubrick.

My first question about the Blue Room is not does it work? Rather, I have to wonder, why does it need to exist? What conditions of social order and disciplinary regime give rise to its “need” and justification?

The Blue Room is a pilot program drawing upon lesser-tested theories in eco-psychology. Denson explains that it came into being through a series of conversations.

In a 2010 TED talk, biologist Nalini Nadkarni talked generally about how nature can be used to rehabilitate and prisoners with jobs skills. At the time, I thought Nadkarni’s implementation of programs to identify moss species and raise endangered frogs as part of the Prison Sustainability Project was fantastic. I still do. Laudable initiatives. (I’ve talked about Nadkarni-started projects here and here on the blog before).

During her TED talk, Nadkarni mentioned she was thinking about installing large-scale murals of nature in the Supermax facilities of Washington. The Washington DOC was supportive but the correctional officers were opposed and the idea was shelved. Then, in late 2012, a Snake River corrections officer named Kevin Karpati watched the TED talk. Karpati emailed the link to Mark Nooth, the prison’s superintendent. Nooth, in turn, emailed the link to Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU. Gilbertson contacted Nadkarni and asked if it could work.

This is where I wish to acknowledge that the people involved in instituting the Blue Room are making – from within a very restrictive law enforcement environment — efforts to improve the lot of prisoners. They have initiated the Blue Room as a response to severe deficiencies in the system. They cannot change the penal codes and administrative laws, but they can change the available practices within the walls. The Blue Room is an attempt to restore positive sensory input within a facility that routinely denies such inputs.

Nadkarni said she hoped it would work but had no evidence. All agreed that the only way to know was to test the hypothesis. An interior exercise room was converted to a screening room with projector and two chairs.

Nadkarni, along with National Gepgraphic documentary-maker Tierney Thys sourced nature videos. Many came from the NatGeo archives: Big Sur, New Zealand, Costa Rica, mountains, rivers, forest, tropical beaches, underwater reefs, roaring fires and a couple dozen other videos.

[Previously, I’ve written about bibliotherapy (the calculated use of reading lists to spur prisoners’ self-directed correction of “deviance”) in San Quentin Prison in the 1950s. The videotherapy at play in the Blue Room could be interpreted as a modern day equivalent. Words replaced by images?]

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Denson reports that early anecdotes and observations suggest that the Blue Room can have a calming effect. “Lance Schnacker, a researcher for the Oregon Youth Authority, studied the disciplinary records of Snake River’s IMU inmates in the year before, and the year after, the Blue Room opened,” writes Denson. “He calculated that those who didn’t get the unique therapy posted more referrals for disciplinary infractions, while those allowed to use the Blue Room showed a slight dip. Schnacker cautioned that these data were preliminary, but promising.”

Should we be surprised? Give prisoners any small amount of added agency and the opportunity to take-in stimulus that breaks the norm and the monotony then, I’d argue, we would observe a change in behaviour. And most likely, toward the positive. Again, I am left to wonder why prison administrations are initiating small-scale projects such as the Blue Room, instead of taking a step back and recognising that the institutional logic which returns to solitary time-and-time again is the more fundamental issue to address.

Nadkarni, Thys, Schnacker and eco-psychologist Patricia H. Hasbach are set work with Snake River staffers to observe prisoners, conduct surveys and correlate results to existing mental health files. They hope to be able to determine to what degree exactly the Blue Room calms prisoners.

However, determining whether the Blue Room does or does not reduce suicidal or violent tendencies is a red herring. The study misses the point. Whether prisoners see 20-minute long reels of guppy fish and seaweed, or not, doesn’t alter the fact that solitary confinement makes people lose their minds. Why are we interested in mitigating the effects of a barbarous facility when we should be dismantling the walls of the facility altogether?

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All images: Beth Nakamura

2015 HR CALL OUT-2

The Magnum Foundation Photography & Human Rights Fellowship is an all expenses-paid scholarship for non-western, regional photographers and activists to attend the Photography & Human Rights summer program at New York University.

Over the past 5 years, 21 fellows from 15 different countries have participated in the program.

Applicants must be:
- Emerging and professional students, photographers, activists, and journalists.
– Born and live outside of North America and Western Europe.
– Proficient in speaking, reading, and writing in English.
– Demonstrated a commitment to addressing/documenting human rights issues within their home country.

APPLY HERE

For more into contact Alexis Lambrou at alexis@magnumfoundation.org or 212-219-1248

Follow Magnum Emergency Fund on Tumblr and Twitter.

This is the embarrassing shit — the unconstitutional and serious shit — that politicians get up to when they are driven by fear, assume constituents are docile, and think no-one will call them out.

Well, I and many other good people in the Quaker State are calling them out.

This brouhaha began last month when people were up in arms at political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal delivering the commencement speech for students at Goddard College. Abu-Jamal attended Goddard via correspondence course while imprisoned. Many of the Pennsylvania legislators have admitted they had not heard or read Abu-Jamal’s speech and yet voted unanimously to introduce into law procedures that prevented Americans from exercising their 1st amendment right. This debacle is politically motivated; by signing the so-called “Revictimization Relief Act” into law Governor Corbett and the lazy lawmakers around him are attempting to not look soft in the face of Abu-Jamal’s continued and bare logic. They want him silent and they want all like him silent.

The Abolitionist Law Center say this:

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s scheduled signing of what the Harrisburg Patriot referred to as the “Muzzle Mumia Law” today allows those who have been victims of a personal-injury crime to sue an offender for conduct that causes the victim “mental anguish.” The statute is so devoid of definition or standards that the Harrisburg Patriot wrote: “Some victims of terrible crimes will be in a ‘state of mental anguish’ as long as the person who did it to them is alive and breathing. Does ‘breathing’ qualify as ‘conduct’ that’s now subject to court action?”

Things in the prisons of Pennsylvania are desperate; the activist group DecarceratePA are at the forefront of exposing the repeated arrogance of politicians and the Fraternal Order of Police, who some believe are the driving force behind this law to silence prisoners.

Many prisoners in Pennsylvania are smart and many know what is going on. They know that their state disallows journalists’ visits with cameras and now the State of Pennsylvania is prohibiting prisoners to read their own writings. It’s a scandal. In the final two minutes of the Democracy Now! clip (above) journalist Noelle Hanrahan puts into great context the continued silencing and attacks on prisoners’ agency over the past few decades in Pennsylvania.

Fortunately, immediate legal response is in swing. More from the Abolitionist Law Center:

Prison Radio and imprisoned intellectual and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal have retained the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) to provide legal representation for them in response to Pennsylvania General Assembly’s passage of a bill intended to subvert the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and repress their free speech rights. The Abolitionist Law Center is working with the attorneys Kris Henderson and Nikki Grant of the Philadelphia-based Amistad Law Project on this matter as well. Amistad Law Project is a public interest law center that advocates for the human rights of all people and currently focuses its work on those inside Pennsylvania’s prisons. ALC, along with the Amistad Law Project, are representing Robert Saleem Holbrook, an imprisoned activist, writer, and member of the Human Rights Coalition.

The law was passed in response to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s selection as a commencement speaker to Goddard College students at his alma mater in Vermont. Leading up to and in the wake of this speech, the Fraternal Order of Police, Governor Corbett, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, and a number of legislators staged a media campaign designed to whip up a frenzy of support for depriving Abu-Jamal, and any other person convicted of a crime, of their constitutional right to free speech. The law also permits the District Attorney where the criminal conviction was obtained, or the state’s Attorney General, to use their public offices and taxpayer funds to file the lawsuit, raising the possibility that Mumia will be sued for his speech by politicians and government officials who have made a habit of attacking him in order to win the support of the FOP for their election campaigns.

On October 17, Mumia Abu-Jamal issued a statement (broadcast at Prison Radio) from the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy where he is serving a sentence of life-without-parole after being framed for the killing of a Philadelphia police officer:

I welcome Governor Corbett’s signature on an unconstitutional bill that proves that the government of Pennsylvania, the executive and the legislature, don’t give one wit about their own constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, nor the United States Constitution. I welcome that because it proves that they are the outlaws.

Abu-Jamal has spent 33 years in prison, 30 of which were in solitary confinement on death row, after being convicted at a 1982 trial that, according to Amnesty International, “failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings.” (see Manufacturing Guilt to learn more about the case) By continuing his journalism as well as maintaining his innocence and attracting a massive international movement of supporters, Mumia has long been targeted by the Fraternal Order of Police and their political counterparts. “Having failed to kill Mumia on the street in 1981, and having failed to execute him during his over 30 years on death row, the FOP and the government of Pennsylvania continues to try to silence him, this time by extinguishing his speech,” said Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.

Abu-Jamal has given three other commencement addresses in the past: Goddard in 2008, Antioch College in 2000, and Evergreen College in 1999. He has recorded more than 3,000 essays, published seven books in nine languages, with two more books set for publication in 2015, and has been the subject of three major broadcast and theatrical movies. The latest film, Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary, is currently airing on the Starz network, sold out theatres coast to coast, and has sold more than 20,000 DVDs.

“The ‘Silence Mumia Law’ should be understood as part of a reaction against recent criticisms of the prison and criminal legal systems. In the wake of the Ferguson rebellion, race and class-based mass incarceration, and the role of police in enforcing it with arbitrary arrests, frame-ups, and extrajudicial killings, is being questioned more than ever. The Fraternal Order of Police and the government are scrambling to silence those questions, disingenuously using the language of ‘victims rights’ to re-establish the lie that police forces and other institutions of state violence are righteous protectors of public safety that are beyond question. This illegal attack on our clients’ constitutional and human rights will be fiercely challenged in the streets and the courts,” said ALC Legal Director Bret Grote.

For more information contact Noelle Hanrahan on globalaudiopi@gmail.com or 415-706-5222. Alternatively, contact Bret Grote on bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org or 412-654-9070

Sign the petition against the bill.

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Xavier Randolph dances with his father Frank Randolph during a Hope House summer camp program for youth with imprison fathers at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD.

RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.

Raymond Thompson Jr. is a photographer, video journalist, educator and father.

In his Justice Undone Project, Thompson Jr. documents the leaching and negative effects of mass incarceration. He shows us how the poor are criminalised by society and kept down. He’s trying to get past stereotypes of Black America and does so by photographing the families and the communities outside of prison. So far, chapters of Justice Undone include A Dream Denied and The Browns.

Prisons touch nearly everyone in America’s poorest communities. One person’s imprisonment effects many others’ lives. The knock-on effects are profound. Locked up, exiled parents can mean extended family members are the primary care givers. Young children can lack a mother or a father or both for long periods. A child’s emotional and social development can be hampered and the incarceration of a parent vastly increases a child’s chances of being locked up later in life. The cycle continues.

In film, print and photography, America has a history of demonising young black men. In response, Thompson Jr. works to image all generations and races from America’s lower classes in an attempt to build empathy in his audience. So far, Thompson Jr.’s work has focused on African American communities but soon he is to venture into poor white communities in the Midwest, and to demonstrate that our broken criminal justice policies impact the poor. Prisons are a class issue just as much as they are a race issue.

The closer you look at the prison industrial complex, the better you understand society. Thompson Jr. is holding up a mirror in which we are all reflected. He was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about his photography.

[Click on any image to view it larger]

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): It seems your work on issues surrounding community, the war on drugs and incarceration is an ongoing endeavour. Is this the case? If so, tell us what you’re up to and what you’re working on now.

Raymond Thompson Jr. (RTJ): My project Justice Undone started as my master thesis while I was in graduate school in Austin, Texas. I originally intended only to do a story about the long term effects of incarceration on families and communities in East Austin, which is a predominantly African American and Latino part of the city.  After I received a grant from the Alexia Foundation to continue the project, I expanded the project to Washington D.C and New Orleans.

In the 18 months since then, my wife and I  had our first child and I took a job working as a video producer for West Virginia University. So, most of the last 18 months have been consumed with adjusting to life as a parent. The sleep deprived nights are decreasing. So, I’m slowly moving into the next stage of this project.

Even though I have never been incarcerated and my immediate family has not been directly affected by mass incarceration, I still feel a deep connection to the issue. I saw myself in the faces of the men, women and children navigating the prison system. Now with the birth of my son, I feel it is even more important.

There are several story angles in my project that still need covering. I’m currently in the process of researching and planning local Justice Undone stories for trip this fall and a trip to the midwest in the early spring. I’m currently based in West Virginia, which offers a chance to approach this work from beyond the lens of race and move it more towards class.

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A boy stares though a window during a Friends and Family of Incarcerated People (FFOIP) car wash fundraiser in Southeast Washington, D.C. Friends and Family of Incarcerated People, a non-profit based in Washington D.C., offers a summer camp for children of incarcerated parents and other children whose parents are absent.

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Members of ‘Mix Emotion’ go-go band pray before a performance at a community gardening event in the Lincoln Heights area of Northeast Washington D.C. Lincoln Heights is a crime plagued area and has a large number of low-income residents.

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Several D.C. teenagers relax and socialize during the Friends and Families of Incarcerate People annual retreat in outside Charlottesville, VA. The goal of the retreat is to give youth a chance to experience life outside of their depressed D.C. neighborhoods.

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A child looks at a car that had been broken into the night before a Friends and Family of Incarcerated People (FFOIP) summer camp in Southeast Washington, D.C.

PP: When and how did you move toward your current political conscience?

RTJ: In the 1990s, I was a teenager living in the suburbs of Virginia outside of Washington D.C. I watched the War on Drugs rage on my television screen. It was in these moments that I started to feel something was wrong. But I was not equipped with the knowledge or maturity to understand what I was seeing.  On my television screen, I watched images of black men and boys dead or being led away in handcuffs. These visual images negatively affected how I felt about myself and other African Americans. Part of the reason for working on Justice Undone is to heal myself and to start to reclaim the visual history of African Americans in the United States.

My political awareness stemmed from my undergraduate studies. I was an American Studies major with a concentration in human rights. In my course work, which spans from American literature and history to sociology, I learned to recognize the complex weave of racial, economic, and  political threads that form the social blanket of America. But, what really set me on this path was a senior seminar on the American Prison Industrial Complex. That class expanded my thinking on the subject, which later became my intellectual basis for the project.

PP: How did you decide on strategies to talk about these issues with your photography?

RTJ: There have been so many images about prisons and about the War on Drugs. A lot of the pictures work to reinforce stereotypes about minorities as “The Other.” In the first part of this project, I focused on children and families left behind in mass incarceration’s wake. I felt I had to avoid images of black men in the beginning because I did not want viewers from outside of these communities to immediately write the project off. I needed those viewers to move beyond the stereotypes and to have a empathetic reaction, without relying too heavily on people being portrayed as victims.  In the next stages, I will focus more on the men, who are actually directly affected by prison.

Many of the great documentary photographers of the past three decades have produced work that is great but also problematic because they reinforce stereotypical images of urban black life. One of those photography books I have on my bookshelves in Eugene Richard’s Cocaine Blue, Cocaine True. It is an important work, but if you don’t dive into Richard’s words that were published along with the images you can come away with a skewed meaning. It is this decontextualization that worries me.

My strategy to combat this decontextualization is to create images of black life that focuses on the everyday. By searching for images that show African Americans in the mundane ritual of daily life, I hope that people not directly affected by mass incarceration will be able to see themselves in the pictures the way I do, as an antidote to years of self-hate and willful ignorance.

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The Booker T. Washington Public Housing complex, in Austin, Texas, is plagued by a revolving door of single-parent households and incarceration.

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Nicholas Brown, 19, speaks with his girlfriend before leaving. He has a stained relationship with his mother Vicky who has spent the majority of his childhood away in prison and drug treatment institutions.

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Marquis, 18, BB and Leroy Brown hangout on the front porch of Beverly Brown’s house in Austin.

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Tyler Pippillion works on a math puzzle during a skills class at the African American Men and Boys Harvest Foundation, a non-profit in Austin, TX that works with at-risk minority youth.

PP: What are the main points you want to communicate in your work?

RTJ: The first thing I hope my audience gain from this project is that U.S. laws have been unequally enforced in poor minority communities. Second, I wanted to make understood that the  large numbers of men and women cycling in and out of prison has an immeasurably negative effect on their communities. Finally, I want the audience to realize that the impact of incarceration is falling on small geographic areas within cities, because a large portion of these men and women are being taken from identified communities.

PP: Can you explain the title ‘Justice Undone’?

RTJ: I think that justice and fairness are central to the American ideology. If you follow the rules you will be rewarded. If you break them then you will be punished. For African Americans, The Civil Rights Act of 1964,  was “justice” for generations of discrimination and abuse. But, the gains of the 1960’s were essentially rolled back by the War on Drugs, the tough-on-crime movement, three strikes laws, and drug sentencing laws, which unfairly fell on the shoulders of African American communities.

So the title is meant to reflect the havoc of three decades of drug policies and the resulting explosion of the U.S. prison population that has played a big role on the agency and self esteem of African Americans in the United States.

I wanted the title to reflect critically on the U.S. justice system, which has failed to protect its most vulnerable members. While I was writing and reporting for my masters thesis, I was inspired by the hip-hop song Tip The Scale from the Roots’ album Undun.

Lot of niggas go to prison
How many come out Malcolm X?
I know I’m not
Shit, can’t even talk about the rest
Famous last words: “You under arrest”
Will I get popped tonight? It’s anybody’s guess
I guess a nigga need to stay cunning
I guess when the cops comin’ need to start runnin’
I won’t make the same mistakes from my last run in
You either done doing crime now or you done in
I got a brother on the run and one in
Wrote me a letter, he said when you comin’
Shit man, I thought the goal’s to stay out
Back against the wall, then shoot your way out
Gettin’ money’s a style that never plays out
‘Til you end up boxin’ your stash, money’s paid out
The scales of justice ain’t equally weighed out
Only two ways out, digging tunnels or digging graves out

Through the lyrics of this song, I felt the frustration of many black men who have limited choices, but still must navigate the challenges of being a black male in the United States.

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A boys listen to instructions on keeping a proper boxing guard during a rally to protest the shooting death of Almeded Bradley by an Austin Police Officer.

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Boys play a game of basketball in the Booker T. Washington public housing complex, Austin, Texas.

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Teenage boys play basketball at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention facility in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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Chelsea Shorts set up a studio in a shed in the backyard of her east Austin home. She uses the space to make clothes, draw and paint. The shed is a refuge from the crowded house that she shares with her parents, grandparents, cousins and one sibling. Chelsea biological father was incarcerated for most of her life.

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Beverly Brown covers her eyes as she rest in her living room. Members of three different generation of her family have been incarcerated or had problems with drug addiction.

PP: Is there an easy way to describe the massive effect harsher sentencing and imprisonment has had on communities you’ve documented. How, in other words, do we put it into words?

RTJ:There is no simple way to discuss the topic because it is so complex.

A lot has been put in words, but I don’t know if we have reached the same level of understanding in the visual. Part of my goal is to reimagine the image of African Americans in Americans’ visual memory. These days there is always public outcry at any sort of overt racial discrimination in words, written or verbal. There is a bit of a lag in the public’s response to visual stereotypes of minorities. Responding to these stereotypes and creating what bell hooks, calls the “oppositional black aesthetic,” is a way that image makers can help challenge mainstream biases.

PP: What can we do as audiences to photography and as citizens to improve the situation?

RTJ: The next time they see a newspaper article or a television news report about a drug arrest or a drug sentencing I hope they start a conversation with a friend of family member about what is happening in their name as taxpayers. I want people to see beyond the individual situation and start to see the overarching pattern of crime, punishment, drugs, and incarceration in America.

PP: How do you describe photography’s role in relation to social justice?

RTJ: I don’t know if social justice can happen in a visual vacuum.

Photography’s first purpose is to pass information about an issue to an audience. Its second purpose is to move the social conversation past exposition. There are details in the everyday that offer unique paths to understanding.

PP: And empathy.

RTJ: From the expression of someone’s eyes, to the color of a summer dress, to the chaos of a kitchen before serving Thanksgiving dinner. It is in those common areas that we as human beings find ways to related to each other. Photography as a quasi universal medium is perfectly suited for this task.

PP: Thanks, Raymond. And thank you for your work and conscience.

RTJ: Thank you, Pete.

Chelsea Shorts walks along the railroad tracks near her home in East Austin.

Chelsea Shorts walks alone railroad tracks in Austin, Texas. Shorts father was incarcerated for most of her life.

BIOGRAPHY

Raymond Thompson Jr. is a freelance photographer and multimedia producer based in Morgantown, WV. He currently works as a Multimedia Producer at West Virginia University. He received his Masters degree from the University of Texas at Austin in journalism and graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a BA is American Studies. He has worked as a multimedia photojournalist for the Door County Advocate, the Times of Northwest Indiana, the Kane County Chronicle, Times Community Newspapers and the Washington Times.

You can follow his activities on his blog, on the Twitter and on Instagram.

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Children’s graffiti covers the walls of a cell at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention center in New Orleans, LA. The center serves as the pre-trial detention for youths charge with committing a delinquent offense.

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Prison Obscura continues to travel. If you’re in or around New Jersey then you should know a version (a tighter edit) of Prison Obscura is currently on show at Alfa Arts Gallery in downtown New Brunswick. The show runs until November 1st.

The official opening was last Friday (10th) and coincided with the Marking Time: Prison Arts & Activism Conference at Rutgers University and hosted by the Institute for Research on Women (IRW). To give you a taster of the presentation, below are some snaps taken by staff at Alfa Arts Gallery. But not before a few notes of thanks …

GRATITUDE

I’d like to thank Alfa Art Gallery-owners Chris Kourtev and the entire Kourtev family for generously giving over their space for three weeks to house the show. Thanks to Nicole Fleetwood, Sarah Tobias and all the staff at IRW involved in bringing Prison Obscura to NJ. Thanks for a wonderful conference too!

I’d also like to extend my thanks once more to Matthew Callinan, Associate Director of Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford. Matthew continues to make sure the logistics for each venue are taken care of and, in this case, gave up an entire Sunday to drive from Philadelphia and install the show. Thanks to the staff at John B. Hurford Center for Arts & Humanities at Haverford, who continue to support the exhibition.

For more information about the exhibition, visit the Prison Obscura website.

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Ever since I came across the work Temps Mort it has haunted me. Haunted me in a good way; it has stayed with me. It resonates because of the power delivered by Mohamed Bourouissa and his collaborator’s low-res images. It resonates, also, because this is the only project made by an artist and prisoner with contraband cell-phones that I know of. Surely, there are exchanges like this happening all the time, but this is the only published example. And it was made with the express intentioned to make art.

So I was pleased to discover, recently, that Temps Mort is now a book.

Methodologically, Bourouissa is way ahead of the game. As well as asking for images made according to description and sketches, he asked for videos. Bourouissa would send example videos and his collaborator (whom we know only as Al) would mimic. Throughout the project, Bourrouissa is clearly thinking about how the work will look to secondary and tertiary audiences. We are asked to make sense of seemingly random glimpses of an institution’s innards.

In exchange for composed views of the inside, Bourouissa sent short videos of the Paris streets. The simplest gestures become impressive. Even the txtspk language that is reproduced in the book is touching. In prisons, cellphones are illegal, valuable and a scarce resource, but the two use the tool with abandon and they repeatedly text to make sure they’re adequately fulfilling one another’s requests for footage.

This is not a photobook heavy on photos, yet everything inside depends on the discussions about images between Bourouissa and Al. There’s a lot of white space. The texts ensure we know the timeline and the white space ensures we know — and sense — the slow passing of time.

Temps Mort is over 5 years old now and the book feels a little like a memorial to that audacious moment when an artist dared and a prisoner dreamed. The book is a document that will last longer than the exhibitions and the interest in cellphone videos that declare a moment in Parisian jail operations. This blog post is many more steps removed from the original gifts between Bourouissa and Al. This blog post has no audio/visual jacks nor 9-foot white cube walls. This blog post lags behind the thrill of the original creation of the works and behind the recent exhibitions Bourouissa has mounted. My humble hope, here, is to impress how impressed I am. There’s nothing like this project.

There’s been many projects made in collaboration with prisoners from Virginia to Tennessee, and from Louisiana to Illinois, artists have communicated with prisoners to conjure something beyond the limits of the cell. And yet, none of those efforts have used the illegally smuggled mobile phone as their tool. There’s a subtle two fingers to the man in Temps Mort that we shouldn’t deny. I’m inclined to celebrate it.

Here’s some images and videos appropriated without permission from the web. Enjoy.

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© Ruddy Roye

PDX Design Week wrapped up last weekend. Before I moved out of the city, I was asked to do a guest post for the PDXDW blog. I don’t know much about design, so I wrote about photographers that are making good use of emerging technologies or commenting on our brave new world dominated by emerging and automated technologies.

Thanks to Taryn Cowart for her assistance getting it published.

With some line-editing, I crosspost the listicle below.

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PHOTOGRAPHY’S BEST

Good photography is good vibes. Often, even bad photography is good vibes. The world needs Seflies, SnapChat cheekiness, cat GIFs, and Doge bombs. However, sometimes, we have to search out the good stuff. We need to look around and ask what’s at stake. Frankly, there’s not a lot resting on your cellphone pictures — they’re not changing the world. When the technologies and file formats with which they were made are obsolete, no-one will care if your phone snaps are lost forever. Least of all you?

When we talk about art, journalism and photography we should be able to single projects out and to define worth. Some creative endeavors are world-changing. I want to give a nod to photographers and artists working with images who inform us about the world and some of its urgent issues. As users and consumers, I want to believe we can leverage rapid publishing and sharing for political and social improvement.

BEST USE OF INSTAGRAM

Ruddy Roye was the first photographer to really stake his style on the meaningful caption. He ditched the hashtags and asked real people some real questions. Based in New York most of his portraits are of people in his neighborhood and jollies around the Big Apple. His feed drips with humanity and reveals stories you couldn’t imagine. This is the REAL Humans OF New York! Also, I like to credit Roye for landing the fatal blow to the snarky #TLDR hashtag.

2DiCampoEverydayAfrica

© EverydayAfrica

SECOND BEST USE OF INSTAGRAM

Peter DiCampo and fellow journalist Austin Merrill (both white American) set up the Everyday Africa after years of reporting from the continent and witnessing nothing but sensational and scary images of war, tragedy and the like. What about the normal everyday stuff? In an attempt to make the most of boring daily things, DiCampo and a wide cadre of collaborator quickly put together a simple, illuminating, sometimes colorful, and intimate Instagram feed. It’s political but not difficult. Okay, so it’s a free-for-all that promotes aesthetically ordinary pictures, but I’ll take neoliberal relativism over neocolonialist manipulation every day of the week.

EverydayAfrica spurned dozens of loose collective of photographers who set up EverydayMiddleEast, EverydayAsia, EverydayIran and even EverydayBronx. Instagram sponsored an Everyday “Summit” at the 2014 Photoville Festival and ponied up cash to fly in contributors from all corners of the globe. These guys are much better IG-movement than the creepy Christians making VSCO lifestyle shots to pair with their #blessed affirmations and bible quotes.

Watch out though: EverydayUSA has some of the best photojournalists under it’s belt. Photo-industry-folk reckon EverydayUSA will soon eclipse all the other accounts, at which point the whole Everyday movement may have announced its death. Get on this young movement while it’s still fresh and focused on countries other than the one you live in.

3MishkaHenner

© Mishka Henner

BEST USE OF GOOGLE EARTH

If there’s a controversial topic Mishka Henner hasn’t produced a body of work on, he’s probably in his studio, right now, making it. From censorship, to prostitution in the Mediterranean, from military bases to big-ag food production, from war to big oil, Henner doesn’t shy away from tough topics. His skill is to do so without really leaving his studio. Henner is one of the cleverest, canniest and hardest working artists dealing with Google and the machine age of image-making.

He winds people up with his methods that are anathema to photo-purists but what else is there to do with available imagery if not to capture, ‘shop and frame it in political terms. Google is the all seeing eye that doesn’t care.

tomasvanhoutryve

© Tomas Van Houtryve

BEST USE OF PERSONAL DRONES

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates American operated drones have killed between 2,296 and 3,718 people, as many as 957 of them civilians. That’s a whole lot of killing.

The program of U.S. airstrikes which began in 2002, but was only publicly acknowledged in 2012 is a remote war driven by a remote technology. Belgian photographer Tomas Van Houtryve decided the best way to grab Americans’ attention to the issue was to show them how drone attacks would appear in America.

There’s no shortage of projects about drones to get us thinking about the issue. John Vigg has his Google surveilled drone research labs and airports; Jamie Bridle traced a drone shadow in Washington D.C. last year and launched Dronestagram to populate social media sites with satellite views of drone strike sites; Trevor Paglen has photographed drones at distance; and Raphaella Dallaporta took a drone to Afghanistan under the guise of an archaeological survey.

Most recently Not A Bug Splat made a splash. Cheeky and powerful the project installed massive portraits of children in regions subject to U.S. drone strikes, with the intent of pricking the conscience of remote U.S. drone operators stationed in Nevada about to bring the hammer of destruction down on that Waziristan village.

JoshBegleyPrisonMap

Screenshot of Josh Begley’s Prison Map

BEST USE OF SURVEILLANCE IMAGERY AGAINST THE SYSTEM

Data artist Josh Begley specializing in scraping images from publicly available sources. He then creates App and websites to publish the info and produce push notifications you can’t avoid.

For his project Prison Map, Begley took the GPS coordinates of every prison, jail and immigration detention center in America and fed them into a Google Maps API code he had modified. He ran the script and it spat out more than 5,300 satellite images — one for every locked facility in the U.S. The prison population in this country has grown 500% in the past 30 years. One in every one hundred adults is behind bars and most of them are poor people. The recurrent patterns of brutally functional architecture within Prison Map are staggering. We’ve been building prisons in high desert and rural backwaters. Begley makes the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) visible once more.

Likewise, for his project Profiling Is, Begley snagged the NYPD’s surveillance shots of business and residences in the NY boroughs which were under monitoring.

He doesn’t stop there. Begley’s App MetaData alerts users to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This didn’t happen until the conclusion of a merrigoround of negotiation with the “apolitical” Apple. Begley finally got his drone strike App approved when he removed all mention the word drone! Now, you can get next-day updates of Obama’s largely-ignored drone war on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen straight to your smartphone.

State Business II

© Mari Bastashevski

BEST USE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, MUCK-RAKING AND INVESTIGATIVE NOUS

Mari Bastashevski skirts a fine line between journalist, artist, researcher, photographer and tourist to dig up the personalities and money makers in the international arms trade. Here’s the feature I did for WIRED a while back. Her ongoing project State Business is devastating inasmuch it reveals how pervasive and complicit most nations are in making billions on the slaughter of humans.The US, the UK, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Georgia; Bastashevski’s following of the money takes us all over the place … sometimes even to the carport on the Facebook pages of international arms dealers.

elahi

BEST MAKING SENSE OF SURVEILLANCE

If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em. In 2002, after Hasan Elahi was mistaken for someone on the terror watch list and detained for hours at Detroit airport, he decided he’d save the authorities the bother and monitor himself. Caustic, direct, creepy and amusing, Elahi photographed everything he did, ate, shit, saw and worked on. He also GPS tracked his every move on a live web map. The project is titled Tracking Transcience. One of the by-products of the self-monitoring is the creation of a typology of toilets. Taking sousveillance to another level and entertaining thousands while he does it. Brill.

migrazoom

© MigraZoom. A migrant on a cargo train traveling from Arriaga, Chiapas to Ixtepec, Oaxaca. After crossing the Mexican-Guatemalan border and traveling to Arriaga, migrants hitch a ride on top of cargo trains to Ixtepec. This trip takes about 12 hours. In addition to the risk of falling off the train (amputations and death are common), gangs frequently extort migrants, charging them $100 to ride. They face threats of being thrown off the train, kidnapped, raped or trafficked if they do not pay.

REALEST VIEWS OF IMMIGRATION

There’s some great fine art projects out there about the U.S./Mexican border. Probably, the stand out is David Taylor’s Working The Line, which documents the militarization of the border. But it can be criticised for being to distant and tends to rest on the creaking aesthetic mores of American landscape photography. If we want to see what is really going on during the tough journey’s into North America, we should pay attention to MigraZoom, a project by Spanish-born photographer Encarni Pindado which puts disposable cameras in the hands of economic migrants during their perilous treks northward.

DavidTaylor

© David Taylor

Another beautifully shot and more unexpected treatment of new arrivals is Gabriele Stabile’s Refugee Hotel which documents approved asylum seekers’ first nights in America at four hotels adjacent to four hub airports through which new refugee migrants arrive. Respectful documentation that is pregnant with uncertainty.

Taylor’s work is currently on show at the amazing ‘Covert Operations’ at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

BEST USE OF INTERNET FOR DISCUSSION

Photographer Hank Willis Thomas is a prolific force. One of his most recent projects Question Bridge is a platform for black males to ask other black males questions about black identity. Participants do so through video and provide answers similarly. Access is easy, involvement free, connections priceless and it works well in exhibition format too. The murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson is the latest incident to demonstrate to the entire nation our shared need to face racial inequality int he country. Willis Thomas is doing his bit.

LOCKWOOD-01

© Lindsay Lochman and Barbara Ciurej

BEST COMMENTARY ON MECHANICAL AGE FOOD PRODUCTION

With Ag Gag laws becoming ever more common, clever responses to imaging industrial food production must be inventive. Lindsay Lochman & Barbara Ciurej rip on the much-mythologized West and specifically on the hero-worship of Carleton Watkins by constructing sugar-coated and corn-fed diorama reconstruction of Watkins’ landscapes with shitty foodstuffs.

Will Potter ain’t a photographer but he’s putting imagery to good ends. Potter, a TED Fellow, has been reporting on the crack down on environmental activists under homeland security legislation that was designed to tackle terrorist. Instead of chasing bombchuckers, our law enforcement is going after tree huggers. The title of Potter’s book, Green Is The New Red, say its all. Routinely, it has been eco-activists who’ve brought us the shocking footage from inside factory farms. Potter, continuing the tradition of expose, wants to fly drones over feedlots and take advantage of laws being slow to be written. Again, we seeing the convergence of technologies and activist peel back the layers of obscurity purposefully put over our shady business practices in years past.

DonnaFerrato

© Donna Ferrato

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

The greatest photography work being done to reveal the entrapped, terrorized lives of those victim to domestic violence, is done — perhaps not unsurprisingly by female photographers. Donna Ferrato has trained a lens on the topic for decades. Recently, young gun Sara Naomi Lewkowicz captured similar images to Ferrato as an intimate witness to partner abuse. The parallels were saddening proving that this is a strand of violent psychology we just are not dealing with effectively. To be frank, the issue isn’t being imaged enough; intimate partner abuse remains hidden behind closed doors.

Paula Bronstein was one of the earliest and most direct photographers to document the survivors of acid attacks in Asia. If we’re to mention women’s rights abroad we have to look at the work of Stephanie Sinclair, whose multiyear project Too Young To Wed is pitch perfect. Quiet, weighty, tragic and polychrome portraits of child brides throughout the world. Sinclair’s had help from all the major distributors and grant makers to cast the net of her survey far and wide. The transmedia project is about as good as it gets in terms of audience engagement tactics too.

jim-goldberg

© Jim Goldberg

BEST COMMENTS ON WEALTH INEQUALITY

It’s difficult to name a stand out photographer who has taken on the wealth gap in a resonant way. It sounds strange to say but maybe cash is difficult to shoot? This apparent lack is consistent with other art forms though. If Occupy taught us one thing, some issues are designed for public performance, demonstration, walking and protest signs. Think of music, for comparison. In the sixties musicians such as Joe Strummer and Nina Simone emerged with brilliant anger toward social injustice. Despite public disgust made visible in anti-Iraq-war protests and Occupy, there’s not a protest song from the 21st century of note. Perhaps music isn’t the format for anger or the wealth gap either?

Don’t worry, I’m not being a pessimist here. Violent dismay certainly exists. I’m just not convinced art is the realm where we see the most direct political action. Gone are the days of the great labor photographers such as Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis. Inequality was laid bare in the photojournalism of the civil rights era (Ernest Cole, Charles Moore, Danny Lyon) and while those reportages were about money and opportunity they weren’t primarily about the markets. Check out the work of Gregory Halpern for your modern day Milton Rogovin.

The most indelible and forthright description of wealth inequality is Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor, which remains the high point and the tone at which aspiring photographers should aim.

Dang, that’s been a lot of men’s names. I think it right to end with LaToya Ruby Frazier’s name then. She, better than anyone currently making work, ties together class, race, income, post-industrial America, public health, personal health, family and environmental hazard with her generational survey of the women in her family and her home town of Braddock, PA, in The Notion OF Family.

LaToyaRubyFrazier

© La Toya Ruby Frazier

 

ADPSR

I’ve wondered before where all the photographs of solitary are. This question presupposes that the American public’s exposure to the inside of these modern dungeons will spur a degree of enlightenment, consternation and protest.

Putting the veracity of that string of causality aside for a moment, it might be worth saying that photographs are perhaps not necessary to stir emotional and political response. Maybe sketches can do these things as well, or better?

An opportunity to discuss this will arise in the next few weeks at the UC Berkeley’s Wurster Hall Gallery, in the College of Environmental Design.

Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) present “Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights,” an exhibit about the architecture of incarceration featuring drawings of solitary confinement cells by people currently being held inside.

In addition, rarely seen designs for execution chambers built in the U.S. and photographs by Richard Ross will be on show.

“Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights,” highlights problematic and little-known spaces within United States prisons and detention centers that house activities deemed to violate human rights. What do these spaces have to teach us about the state of freedom in America?

The exhibit is free and open to the public M-F 10-5 until Nov. 21st, and the opening reception is this Tuesday, October 14th from 6-8pm, at which author Sarah Shourd, Professor Jill Stoner, and architect John MacAllister will be in attendance.

Here’s the announcement and here’s the Facebook event page.

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