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© Mark Murrmann, from the series, Invitation To A Hanging.
Two very potent articles published in Guernica Magazine have impressed recently.
First up, Ann Neumann details the heavy-handed force-feeding procedures by prison staff in response to the longest ongoing hunger strike in America.
The Longest Hunger Strike: American courts recognize rights to refuse life-saving treatment. So why won’t the State of Connecticut let William Coleman die?
“Staff turned off the video camera typically used to record medical procedures. They strapped Coleman down at “four points” with seatbelt-like “therapeutic” restraints. Edward Blanchette, the internist and prison medical director at the time, pushed a thick, flexible tube up Coleman’s right nostril. Rubber scraped against cartilage and bone and drew blood. Coleman howled. As the tube snaked into his throat, it kinked, bringing the force of insertion onto the sharp edges of the bent tube. They thought he was resisting so they secured a wide mesh strap over his shoulders to keep him from moving. A nurse held his head. Blanchette finally realized that the tube had kinked and pulled it back out. He pushed a second tube up Coleman’s nose, down his throat, and into his stomach. Blanchette filled the tube with vanilla Ensure. Coleman’s nose bled. He gagged constantly against the tube. He puked. As they led him back to his cell, the cuffs of Coleman’s gray sweatshirt were soaked with snot, saliva, vomit, and blood.”
““I have been tortured,” he would say later. And it was enough to make Coleman start drinking fluids again. For a while. When he stopped a few months later, the prison force-fed him again, and twelve more times over the next two years. By last year they could no longer use Coleman’s right nostril. A broken nose in his youth and repeated insertion of the tube have made it too sensitive.”
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Secondly, S.J. Culver writes about his discomfort visiting Alcatraz, discussing the problems that plague all sites of dark tourism.
Escape to Alcatraz: Notes on prison tourism.
“Alcatraz Island, understandably, does not bill itself as a place to spend twenty-eight dollars to get really depressed about a country’s piss-poor priorities regarding human rights. […] I begin to think that, if the point of an authentic tourism experience (if such a thing exists) is to understand another condition closely, the Alcatraz cellhouse tour fails. The punishing repetitiveness of incarceration is utterly absent in the carefully paced rise and fall of the yarns on the recorded tour. Worse, there’s no mention of how the Alcatraz cellblock, with its dioramas meticulously re-creating midcentury prison life, might resemble or not resemble a contemporary working U.S. prison. Plenty of the visitors around me seem to think they are witnessing “real” incarceration. I sense my initial impression had more truth than I realized; what we’re taking in is closer to a film set than to county lockup.”
The gulf between the realities of prison life and museum prison narratives are sometimes more pronounced than the differences between the realities of prison life and photographs of prisons in the media.
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While we’re on the topic of prison museums, a mention of Mark Murrmann‘s photographs of Invitation To A Hanging is long overdue. You might know Murrmann as the kick-ass photographer of punk. He is also the very kind and engaged photo editor at Mother Jones.
‘Prison museums?’ I hear you say. There’s more than you think.
Prison museums and dark tourism on Prison Photography
19th Century Museum Prison Ships
Roger Cremers: Auschwitz Tourist Photography
Daniel and Geo Fuchs’ STASI – Secret Rooms
Steve Davis visits the Old Montana Prison
Hohenschönhausen, Berlin: Stasi Prison Polaroids
Philipp Lohöfener at the Stasi Prison Museum, Berlin
San Pedro Prison, Bolivia: As the Tourists, Dollars and Snapshots End the Riots Begin
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Thanks to Bob for the tip.
In a photography climate that frequently pours cynicism and scorn on global tourism, Cremers is on tricky ground. He can thank Martin Parr for making his path a little more tricky. How do we not dismiss Cremers’ work as stating the obvious?
Cremers does not reduce his tourists to unthinking crowds. Instead, he isolates his subjects; they’re in their own thoughts, their own photo-trance and their own space. There is no throng at Auschwitz and nor is there in Cremers’ images … except for the tightly-packed shuttle bus.
Many of the prisons and concentration camps of the Third Reich have since been incorporated into the culture & heritage industry. Auschwitz receives 750,000/year and Dachau 900,000/year (Young, 1993). In the fifteen years since, one would expect figures to have risen.
Lennon & Foley’s excellent book Dark Tourism argues these sites ‘constitute attractions and they cannot simply be classified as “Genocide Monuments” since a monument in this context conveys a different meaning’. Furthermore, ‘these sites present major problems in interpretation … major problems for the language utilized in interpretation to adequately convey the horrors of the camps. Consequently, historical records and visual representation is extensively used.’
Used not only by the site curators, but created by the visitors for later return. I am not comfortable saying that visitors to Auschwitz consume in the same way tourists do at other sites. I believe the subjects of Cremers photographs are creating their own visual memories of the site AND I believe Auschwitz visitors do so with a consciously different sensibility than at other sites.
I visited Auschwitz in 2000. Words were redundant, the scale of the crime overwhelming and agog meditation my modus operandi. It would be cognizant of the average visitor – knowing they may never return to the site – and unable to muster words, to muster a few images.
Recommended: the Guardian Photo Editor’s summary of the World Press Photo Awards, 2009