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Typology is a trendy term that gets banded about easily these day but I have no better term for the straight photography of objects as these. Menner is the latest photographer in an ever-increasing line of prison tool and prison weapon typologists.
Brett Yasko produced the independent book Shiv that features eleven prisoner-made weapons from the collection of Chris Kasabach and Vanessa Sica. The shivs were confiscated in the 1980s at Rahway – now known as East Jersey State Prison. Yasko’s photographs were presented in Design Observer’s feature Art of the Shiv.
The usual commentary for these types of typology is to admire the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the inmate. Notably, all four photographers have given “backstories” or contexts for the production and/or confiscation of the objects they’ve photographed. For example, Menner explains, “The objects presented here have all been seized in prison cells of the Berlin Tegel prison.” Menner also thanks the staff for allowing access. These extra details are essential if we are to avoid wonder and mere image-consumption.
These typological studies run the risk of serving politiicised positions; of becoming metaphors for human creativity or resistance.
(Worse still, the item and/or photograph is reduced to an objet d’Art.)
THE SOCIAL LIFE OF THINGS
Menner himself is concerned with how images and stories may or may not attach themselves, “What fascinates me here is the very old question of how much of the final object is already “inscribed” in its parts, even before its creation. And by asking this question I also ask a basic question on the nature of images. How much of a story is visible in the images, even before the story itself is unveiled?”
So what do you first think or ask when viewing these images? For me, I want to learn about the institutions, penology and prevailing criminal justice culture in which these inmates functioned:
With regard Yasko’s work – Why were so many shivs made at Rahway? And what led to two collectors acquiring them? With regard Menner and Steinmetz, what uses were dummy pistols and mobile phones put to inside those German prisons?
Fine art representations of these objects mustn’t be the end product in their object biographies. Narratives in the “Social Life of Things” do not end but morph.
The photographs of Yasko, Steinmetz, Macoleta and Menner impose new readings and establish new jumping off points for inquiry.
Every so often commentaries converge as such that I’m compelled to connect the smallish number of dots. I have done it once before here.
SUSAN MEISELAS SPEAKS ON DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY’S ROLE
In ‘Expanding the Circle’, Meiselas talks frankly about the approaches and collaborations necessary to reach a wider audience,
“With whom can I partner – if that seems appropriate – for the work to have an additional life. [It] could be a life of advocacy or a life tied to an issue in a particular way, whether it is targetted at policy makers or to a public. You have to keep documenting at the same time asking those questions. All the while one must continue to document and seek opportunities to create possibilities for engagement.”
It is fair to say that the Open Society’s Documentary Photography Project has a propensity for prison photography projects. The 17th round of Moving Walls fellows has just been announced, and of the seven recipients, two document the lives of the incarcerated.
© Lori Waselchuk
© Ara Oshagan
One last note on cages. Meiselas’ selection includes images from Eugene Richard’s Procession of Them produced as a book in 2008, see spreads here and listen to Richards speak on the project as part of Columbia University’s “Photography as Advocacy?” series (2006).
One task of prison photographers is to emote the isolation and hardness of incarceration. It is a difficult task. Richards, while not looking at prisons per se is a master of conveying the barbarity of the cage and the helplessness of the caged. And besides, in today’s discourses that prefer not to distinguish institutional forms, the mental health asylums of Richard’s work are prisons.
Macoleta, Steinmetz, prison weapon & prison tool typologies
James Pomerantz highlighted the work of Antonio Vega Macotela who began investigating the concept of time as that controlled by outside forces and ended up clocking over 500 hours in the Santa Martha Acatitla Jail, Mexico. Read the essay, it’s an eye-opener!
© Antonio Vega Macotela
This reminded me of Marc Steinmetz‘s work from Germany from a few years ago, which I mentioned last year.
© Marc Steinmetz
PRISONER DATABASES AND MOST-WANTED GALLERIES
This is the first example I am aware of that a state DoC has provided a publicly accessible online search of full profiles and photographs of housed inmates.
No details are excluded; vital stats, aliases, crime, date of crime, body marks, date of release.
I suppose this is the voyeuristic bridge between DOC internal databases and the ever-refreshing scrolling “news” galleries of persons recently booked. The adoption of police mugshots as “news” also came out of Florida, so there is obviously research to be done there into Florida’s culture and visual rhetoric of criminal justice.
In both these cases, the public is being drawn in – by a limited amount of information – to the mechanics of regional sheriffdom.
Most wanted lists, such as that in California that just got a flashy website overhaul, carry some logic in that they inform a public about a potential menace at large. I expect there’d be a public outcry if this service was removed. Accepting that logic, though, it is curious as to why criminal justice agencies would provide mugshots of booked and detained persons.
All told, the availability of state prisoners’ photo IDs makes sense if you consider such databases as deliberate tactic. The databases become other arms in the apparatus of the panopticon; the visage of the prisoner is policed online by the gaze of unlimited number of people, as readily as it is policed by the prison guards’ gaze within the walls.
While mugshots have commonly been released at intervals to the media, particularly of infamous prisoners, never before has a photo-database of society’s transgressors been so accessible and searchable by the public.
We have become nodes in a network of observation and discipline.
The net has widened, and this previously exclusive net is now consolidating with the internet …
The illicit manufacture of tools by prisoner piqued Marc Steinmetz‘s curiosity. He called around German prisons to inquire if they were still in possession of particularly ingenious contraband tools and escape devices.
Santa Fu, Celle, Wolfenbuttel and Ludwigsburg prisons all welcomed Steinmetz to view their collections. (The historical objects of Stammheim and Hohenasperg prisons were part of the Ludwigsburg collection.)
Steinmetz’s photographs were used in a German magazine editorial, but I have seen similar series of object types displayed as fine art.
When photographers set up objects (food, seeds, dead birds, insects, fish, etc) it is usually to draw extended attention to common characteristics and impose drama upon ‘the ordinary’. Against a white backdrop and removed form the clutter of daily life, it is intended that these objects can (if only briefly) transcend their functional purpose and be appreciated within the discourses of beauty and/or high art.
Steimetz wanted to highlight the ingenuity and intelligent design of these objects, and I’d like to do the same.
I have included some weapons here and omitted others. I deliberately omitted crude weapons for this post as they are hardly novel … anything with any weight becomes a dangerous weapon, right? On the other hand, I included guns and rifles as I never thought they could be manufactured from scratch. I was particularly impressed by the electrical items.
Below are Prison Photography‘s pick of the bunch with Steinmetz’s own captions. Thereafter is a brief Q & A with Steinmetz.
DOUBLE-BARRELED PISTOL This gun was found along with other homemade firearms in the cell of two Celle prison inmates on November 15, 1984. The weapons had been made in the prison’s metal workshop. They were loaded with pieces of steel and match-heads.
TATTOOING NEEDLE made from a toothbrush handle, a ball pen and an electric motor; confiscated in ‘Santa Fu’ prison in Hamburg, Germany. Tattooing instruments are a popular and common source of income among inmates but are banned as ‘illegal objects’ due to the danger of infection (Aids, Hepatitis, etc.).
STOVE / GRILL / TOASTER An inmate of Ludwigsburg prison, Germany, botched together this multi-purpose tool from wire, a broken heating rod and some tin foil. It was found in his cell and confiscated sometime in the mid-eighties.
HASH PIPE fashioned from an empty horseradish tube; confiscated in ‘Santa Fu’ prison in Hamburg, Germany. Bongs are the most common of all forbidden items in prisons. The range of materials they are made of mirrors the inmates’ great imagination. And their prior needs.
RADIO TRANSMITTER / BUG made of radio recorder parts by an inmate of Wolfenbüttel prison, Germany (battery is missing). Prisoners occasionally manage to install gizmos like this one in guard-rooms to be prepared for upcoming cell searches. Also suitable as a means of cell-to-cell communication among inmates. A standard radio serves as a receiver.
IMMERSION HEATER made from razor blades; found in a cell in ‘Santa Fu’ jail in Hamburg, Germany. Jailbirds use these tools to distil alcoholic beverages forbidden in prisons. Your typical inmate’s moonshine still includes a plastic can containing fermented fruit mash or juice, an immersion coil of some sort, a rubber hose, and a plastic receptacle for the booze.
RADIO RECEIVER Sometime in the seventies an inmate of Ludwigsburg prison, Germany, built this radio on the sly and hid it inside an encyclopedia. It was probably commissioned by another inmate who had no electronic expertise himself.
SHOTGUN made from iron bedposts; charge made of pieces of lead from curtain tape and match-heads, to be ignited by AA batteries and a broken light bulb. On May 21, 1984 two inmates of a prison in Celle, Germany, took a jailer as a hostage, showed off their fire power by letting go at a pane of bullet-proof glass, and escaped by car.
Q & A
When did you complete this project and why did you take on this subject?
I shot the whole project in April and May 1999. I had read a magazine article about a prisoner in Berlin who had whittled a key to his cell from a toilet seat. Unfortunately, prison officials in Berlin weren’t cooperative, so I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of that key for ‘security reasons’. (Can you believe that?).
But it nevertheless provided the key to the story and got me interested. Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine editors [provided a catalyst] too – they bought the story.
The objects range in date from the 70s through to the mid 90s and from multiple German prisons. How and where did you source the objects?
Prisons often have a collection of items which were secured from inmates’ cells or after attempts at escape.
I did my research exclusively by phone and located a handful of prisons which seemed worth a visit. I decided then and there which objects to photograph.
Much of your previous photography has been about complex scientific experimentation and grand research. Was this project a departure?
Not at all. I have always been interested in the uncommon or even bizarre.
What about the objects is of interest to you?
Ingenuity of improvisation. Intelligence. Purposefulness.
In my work, not everything depends on meticulous planning, but to a great extent on chance and my ability to improvise. Therefore I can relate to these escape tools. I admire their no-nonsense design, their simplicity. Even if their escape attempts fail, these guys cross boundaries in that they find uses for things other than what they were made for.
What do your photographs of the objects add to the stories objects?
To me, they communicate intelligence and the flexibility of the human mind under adverse conditions. I wanted to share my surprise: ‘What the … ?’
Did this project inform or reflect your understanding of German prisons, prison history and/or current prison politics?
Not really. I wasn’t interested in the political or social aspects of the subject matter. It was an interesting experience, though, to get to peek inside these facilities even though I had no contact with any of the inmates.
To compensate for that and to communicate credibility, I tried to collect as much information about the objects as I could. I felt they should be preserved the same way that archaeological artifacts are.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I am working on an independent project which is called ‘Toter Winkel’. I am still searching for an international title which works both in German and English, even though I focus exclusively on Germany.
I started wondering about what cars have done to our cities. I ended up doing night shots of elevated roads with a 4×5″ field camera. It’s hard to believe what monstrosities have been erected for the sake of misconceived mobility!
But this is more of a long-term fine art project than an editorial piece. Fieldwork is completed, but post-production will take a few more months, I’m afraid.
Thank you, Marc
Marc Steinmetz is a photographer specialising in Science and Technology stories. Prison Photography recommends his work on Plasticination, Karakarum – The Archaeology of Genghis Kahn’s Empire and his series on Drinking Water. An extended interview with Marc, is here.
DUMMY PISTOL from blackened cardboard; found on June 23, 1988, in an inmate’s cell in Stammheim prison, Germany, after a fellow prisoner tipped off the jailers. The dummy was hidden in an empty milk pack and was most probably intended to be used for taking hostages in an escape attempt.
All images © Marc Steinmetz.
I originally came across Steinmetz’s work at Accidental Mysteries – a blog I highly recommend for its polished curatorial eye of surprising, inventive and humourous human interventions.