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Casey Orr‘s Comings & Goings is an inquiry into movements and migration. Comings & Goings is a photographic series in three parts. Families considers the prisoners and their loved ones at Her Majesty’s Prison Leeds, UK.
Caged Birds depict the imported pigeons and parrots and parakeets of West Yorkshire, while Migrant Women portrays the recent newcomers to Orr’s county.
Orr insists the three parts be considered together – they are a whole, cannot be separated, and toy with the idea of interconnectedness Orr has grappled with throughout her career.
Comings & Goings proposes that foreign and indigenous are not so far apart. As Orr puts it we all share “a desire to be free, an instinct to nest, to seed, to move and be alive”.
Orr’s work requires time and care to navigate – it is as delicate as it is pioneering. Prints from all three parts were displayed was on the outside walls of HMP Leeds. It was the first time the wall of a UK prison has been used as a gallery space.
I wanted to know a bit more and so emailed Casey.
Q & A
Why did you decide to incorporate H.M.P Leeds into your Comings and Goings project? Was it the subject or the challenge of working within a prison or a mixture of the two?
My photographic work makes connections to my community and to my experience of living here in Armley, Leeds. My interest in the prison came from other projects I’ve done here. I’m always looking for the connection between the things and people I photograph, the systems that operate and seem to run through everything.
The town of Armley is very much built from the systems of power that came through the Industrial Revolution; Armley Mills, once the largest mill in the world, is now the Leeds Industrial Museum; the Leeds Liverpool Canal is now used for leisure; and the incoming migrant communities are moving from their countries for very contemporary reasons, the jobs available to them (and everyone else in Leeds) having much more to do with information technology than agriculture or textiles.
Within all of this movement, stands HMP Leeds, known locally as Armley Jail. It sits on a hill, built in 1847, so that workers in the surrounding mills could be reminded of what would happen if they stepped out of line. The prison (along with a massive, imposing Victorian church) is one of the few buildings around here still used for its original purpose.
The systems of power associated with the panopticon are still firmly in use in the prison. The prison walls, inside my community, seem to be impenetrable, and enclose a community of thousands of prisoners and workers. My interest was in the walls and how to find the connection into the prison, how to link the people inside with all of the flows of life going on outside.
I found that connection through families, through children. Hundreds of families visit their fathers, sons and brothers every week. The families and loved ones are a direct link with the communities outside. I wanted to exhibit the family portraits on the outside walls of the prison because the prison walls are such a architectural staple of this community they can become invisible, people can forget about them and the people behind them. The exhibition was shown on the interior walls as well so that the people inside were seeing the same thing, the same ideas were being shared; walls penetrated by ideas, and by art.
What negotiations did you go through to gain access? Who did you meet? How did it come about?
As a documentary photographer, very little of my time is actually taking pictures, mostly I am trying to gain access to people and places. Before contacting the prison direct I talked to many people in this community and finally went to the Jigsaw Project, the family support unit. From there I met many of the workers who support the families. They were sympathetic to my ideas and introduced me to the Head of Security. From there I met the Governor. All of this took many months. The work, finally shown on the walls as a public art installation as part of the West Leeds Arts Festival in 2009, went through many security checks.
How many times did you go to the visiting room to make the portraits?
I spent a few months in the visitors centre, talking to families, and asking who would like to be a part of the project. Obviously, I got to know them better than the prisoners who I met briefly during the sessions. I spent four days in total in the visiting room.
How did the prisoners and staff respond to your project?
Most people were really supportive of the idea. the thing about photography is that it has uses on many different levels. So this record of families I wanted to make could also be a part of their personal family archive. The fact that I’m able to give something back to people, something useful, like a family portrait, makes me feel better about the fact that I’m asking so much of people, to use their image for one of my ideas. Everyone involved received copies of whichever pictures they wanted from the sessions.
Has your work dealt with systems of detention in the past?
No, my work is about systems of power, photography being very much implicated in that, in the recording and filing of people. So the prison system is always implicated in that, as are all currents of capitalist power.
I’m just completing a book about Comings & Goings and another body of work following the traces of an age old ritual lingering in the English festivity of Bonfire Night.
Casey Orr (b.1968) is originally from Pennsylvania. She has lived in England for 14 years working as a freelance photographer and Senior Lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University.Clients include Diva Magazine, Channel 4, EMI Records, Universal Records and Sports Council England. Orr has exhibited at the University of The Arts, Philadelphia, Pa. and Jen Bekman Gallery in New York. She is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant.
Read more about Orr’s exhibition at HMP Leeds in Armley at the Guardian.