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If you’re strolling around the centre of Charlottesville these next few days and peep a red newspaper box, reach inside and grab yourself a copy of the free paper within.

Accompanying his exhibition of Some Other Places We’ve Missed at The Bridge: Progressive Arts Initiative, artist Mark Strandquist has created eight pages of photos, activist resources and a call to engage.

I have a vested interest in promoting this newspaper. For it, I wrote an editorial about the history of — and imperative of — photographers and artists working in American prisons. It is reproduced in full below.

Even if I wasn’t personally involved, I’d still be singing the praises of Mark’s work – I’ve posted about Some Other Places We’ve Missed before and I am including the work in a prison photography show next year. When Mark and I chatted about the exhibition of Some Other Places We’ve Missed, we got all giddy about the fact that his show is outside of the official LOOK3 program, and yet he is able to grab some mindshare among the throng of photobodies in Charlottesville this week.

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© Mark Strandquist. A photograph made of a scene described by an incarcerated male.

ART AND SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT

For the longest time, photojournalism and documentary work has pursued common good, reliable information, hidden stories and social change. At least, that’s the ideal. With guests such as Susan Meiselas and Martha Rosler, and with Koudelka’s exhibit, the LOOK3 schedule looks serious and seriously good.

Mark and I are huge fans of this year’s LOOK3 line up, but LOOK3 remains a big festival where the cucumber martinis flow like wine and big name photographers will hold court in Charlottesville town center. Festivals are about learning, meeting and sometimes brown-nosing … and, for that, we love them. Everyone leaves photography festivals feeling connected and re-energised and that’s how it should be. But, there’s more.

Some Other Places We’ve Missed asks us to think about image-making in slightly different ways. Not everyone can produce a 20 foot tall Nat Geo vinyl banner, but everyone can have the type of  intimate conversations on which Some Other Places We’ve Missed is based. Of course, I am biased because Mark is having conversations with American prisoners and I think there’s rehabilitative value in that.

I’ll stop prattling on now and just say if your interest is piqued then you should attend the panel talk More than A Witness – Photography as Social Engagement on June 15, 2pm – 3:30pm. Speakers are David Levi Strauss, Chair of Critical Studies at the School of Visual Arts, Edgar Endress of Floating Lab Collective, Yukiko Yamagata of the Open Society Foundation, and Matthew Slaats, Executive Director of the Bridge. They’ll discuss how art facilitates dialogue and can be used to reach out to new subjects and engage broader audiences. Find out more on Facebook here.

Mark has programmed a busy schedule of events at The Bridge including a poetry reading and discussion between gallery-goers and prisoners via a direct feed from a local jail. Full details on The Bridge website.

[Scroll down for my newspaper editorial.]

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Installation shot of Some Other Places We’ve Missed, opening night at The Bridge, Charlottesville, VA.

EDITORIAL: DRAWING ON MEMORY, WORKSHOP GETS PRISONERS AND PUBLICS THINKING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY, STORY AND HIDDEN SPACE

In the 1970s, a purple barge floated up and down the Hudson River in New York state. Once moored, photographers emerged to teach workshops to communities traditionally outside of art circles; hospital patients, rural high-schoolers and — perhaps most remarkably — prisoners. The buoyant vessel with living and gallery spaces was operated by the Floating Foundation of Photography (FFP).

Not all New York State prisons are on the Hudson and so after initial offerings at Sing Sing, FFP ventured inland, eventually delivering photographic arts education in eight prisons. The majority of workshops were facilitated by founder Maggie Sherwood, her son Steve Schoen and a handful of close associates. But, the FFP enjoyed close ties with the New York arts scene and as such invited leading photographers in recent memory to deliver day-long workshops in the prisons – W. Eugene Smith, Arthur Tress, Mary Ellen Mark, Les Krims, Judy Dater, Lisette Model and Lee Witkin to name a few. The FFP mounted exhibitions of “outsider photography” on the anchored barge in Manhattan and in Central Park.

As one browses the images and stories within Some Other Places We’ve Missed, perhaps it is worth bearing in mind the history of arts education — and specifically the role of photography — in the rehabilitation of those locked up within our prisons and jails. The Floating Foundation represents a particular high point in this history; the access into prisons that it negotiated, the pedagogy it employed, and the optimism it eschewed stand out as extraordinary. These days, opportunities for arts education (with strong photographic components) in the prison industrial complex are rare. As such, projects such as Mark Strandquist’s deserve attention.

In the 1980s, mass incarceration began. In the past 35 years, the number of Americans locked up has more than quadrupled. The war on drugs, indeterminate and longer sentencing, broader definitions of criminal behaviour, the decimation of many safety-nets for society’s most vulnerable, and the politics of rhetoric and fear all contributed to the tumorous growth of America’s prisons. Even in states that entered a prison building boom, facilities were soon overcrowded. As costs soared, pressures mounted and efficiencies took priority, both the ability to provide — and belief in — the efficacy of education and arts to help in the rehabilitation of prisoners waned.

States previously provided high school and college education to prisoners as item lines on their budgets. These were scratched from budgets early, and when the Clinton administration revoked prisoners’ right to federally funded Pell Grants in 1994, the message was clear: prisons exist to incapacitate, not to rehabilitate. The majority of college level education provided in state prisons these days is administered by either earnest non-profits, University departments with social justice mandates, and sometimes the two in partnership. Prisons remain legally obliged to enroll prisoners without high-school diplomas into GED programs, but the success of students already alienated by public schooling often hampers success. To speak generally, it is the limited scope of — and limited opportunities for — education in prison that scupper advancement. To wright this ship, a huge shift in political will, informational (media) exchange and tax-payer attitude is required.

Prisoners are lining up to be part of this collective shift of consciousness. “Lucky” prisoners may live in state facilities close to a big city which can draw on volunteers to run programs previously provided by the state. Others find opportunities designed for successful reentry toward the end of their terms. But still, the majority of American prisoners have little to no voice and are for all intents and purposes invisible. Existing creative outlets include law libraries (although not in private prisons), pen-pal programs, and vocational work (prison factories remain because of the immediate profits they create), but these are programs that should exist for all and form merely first rung of the ladders to self-improvement and broadening of the mind.

Some Other Places We’ve Missed brings to us the voices, regrets, dreams and imagination of just a small number of men incarcerated in Richmond County Jail. Mark Strandquist provides us a bridge into their worlds. One needn’t share the political position of an artist to recognize the imperatives of a work or an action; intellectual curiosity and community engagement can saturate the entire political spectrum. Strandquist’s work is sadly exceptional, but it needn’t be. Perhaps, his tenacity is exceptional, but I believe it is within reach of us all. Whenever possible we should be thinking of ways that we can engage with our nation’s prison population. It is a population that has been strategically manipulated to the point of invisibility.

Cameras are a security tool for prison administrations, but in the hands of others are a security hazard. The ability to see, frame and witness life behind bars inherently involves power. In mugshots, in surveillance and in tightly-controlled visiting room digital portraits, prison authorities have a near monopoly on such power. Only rare and serendipitous moments (usually a sympathetic superintendent) give rise to an artist being permitted to use a camera in prison space — Robert Gumpert, Kristen Wilkins, Jenn Ackerman and Jeff Barnet-Winsby are a few examples.

Strandquist navigated this potential barrier by conducting a photography workshop without any introduction of cameras into the classroom. His simple question, “If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?” acted as proxy to any release of the shutter. He asked students to think photographically. While the images are made by Strandquist beyond the prison walls, the essential discussions about memory, self-reflection, the power of photography and the comfort of the image all inform the project.

Through Strandquist’s photographs, we the public, are given an opportunity to connect with the incarcerated; their imagined windows become, momentarily, our window into their lives. But the 1/125th of a second needed to make a photograph is a perverse fraction of the months and years many spend imprisoned. Are the photographs enough? On their own, probably not. But the collaborative and educational core to the project is considerable. As audience, we should employ the same amount of imagination as Strandquist’s students and consider similar ways we can engage with incarcerated persons. There is every reason to think Strandquist’s methodology can be replicated in prisons and jails across the nation. With 2.3 million men, women and children behind bars Some Other Places We’ve Missed should also be a prompt for us to meditate on the millions of sights and experiences in American prisons that we never witness.

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“The neighborhood was middle class, nice, where everyone knew everyone. One great lady taking care of us all – grandmother; Big Momma for short. The house set on fire when one cousin playing with matches. Had to move into government owned property. Family split up. Never as close as before. Miss the love. Home base.”

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BIOGRAPHY

Mark Strandquist is a multi-media artist and curator based in Richmond, VA, who creates work that incorporates viewers as direct participants, features histories that are typically distorted or ignored, and blurs the boundary between artistic practice and social engagement. His work has been featured in various film festivals and independent galleries as well as a current exhibit at the Art Museum of Americas in Washington, DC. He is currently working on a BFA at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has a Tumblr.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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