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WHERE IS THE REFUGE IN A PRISON?
Where is our greatest refuge? A hideaway? Our home? The bedroom? The bed? Artist Dani Gherca reasoned that for women imprisoned in her home country of Romania, the greatest refuge was the bed.
“The bed is no only an object used for the body’s physiological and physical rest, but it’s also an intimate space for the women during the detention. The two square meters around the bed, is the only perimeter she can keep for herself,” says Gherca. “After I talked with some prisoners, I found that, in the evening, when the lights go out in the detention room … that is the only moment when each one of them can afford a really intimate moment.”
As such, Gherca made portraits of women on their beds and asked each to provide context by asking them about their thoughts during those quiet, solitary minutes. The resulting series is called Intime (2012).
I asked Gherca a few questions to provide background to Intime. We publish the female prisoners’ responses in full.
Please continue scrolling.
The night-my thoughts. The night for me, as well for the people around, represents the most quiet period, in which the soul and the mind can meditate and can realize what they’ we done bad or good during the day. The night behind bars is both sweet and bitter. The loneliness oppresses me, the distance from my family struggles me. Every night I am thinking about my child that I love and respect with all my heart; at the beautiful moments that I lost because of my mistakes. I am thinking at the moment when I will step over the threshold to freedom; at my little’s girl innocent smile and sweet hug. Every night I pray to be strong to carry out the punishment and to can be next to my child and to make it up to the period in which she stayed without me.
Q&A WITH DANI GHERCA
Prison Photography (PP): I understand the method, the aim and the outcomes of Intime, but why did you want to photograph inside a prison in the first place?
Dani Gherca (DG): The idea of intimacy is very important for me. I think that us, as human beings, we need freedom of mobility, but have also the bigger need to be able to decide when we want to be alone. The prison is an institution that hides people’s need of intimacy, an institution that limits the woman’s need for mobility.
DG: Yes, I know Cosmin and Ioana’s projects. However, I am interested to document the prison only on the conflict between privacy and this space that compels people to live together 24 hours a day.
PP: Has Targsor been photographed so much because it is relatively relaxed?
DG: Targsor Prison has a more permissive status in this kind of approach. However, I was attracted by this prison because it is the only prison for woman from Romania.
PP: What do Romanians think about prisons?
DG: In the last 3 years, the prison has become an institution that is seen as a method of revenge, mainly due to politicians who were sentenced in large numbers in this period.
PP: What do audiences think about your portraits and the prisoners’ written thoughts?
DG: The audience was more interested in the letters written by the girls. It was a new situation: to have access at the thoughts of some prisoners. Given the fact that this wasn’t an interview, the girls were more relaxed, and acted like they had written letters.
PP: Did the women talk about photography and what it gave them? Did for them? How they used it?
DG: I took them some printed photos. They send pictures home so it’s a good opportunity for them to have some portraits to send to their families. Otherwise, they cannot take pictures. Generally, I think they like to pose. It makes them feel somehow important.
PP: Thanks, Dani.
DG: Thank you, Pete.
“Of all the moderates, the most detestable is the one of the heart.” (A. Camus)
Of how much love we gathered in my soul for you, I’d be able to build the whole world and would still remain. I could build seas and oceans, the sky with billiards of stars and would still remain because my love for you doesn’t knows limits or dimensions. That’s why, I will take a little piece from my soul and a little from your love and I will build a world JUST FOR US and a sky for OUR stars to shine and an infinite ocean of love in which we can swim after the OUR sun will burn our feet after longs wanderings though cities lost in antiquity, cities of a civilization where we have our roots and have never been known, only by angles because the holy land of our love has its foundation on the last rung of the ladder that climbs to God.
Before getting here I was very happy next to my children, next to my family. I regret I am sorry that I have to stay away from my family and she suffers too for me. Now I am sitting and thinking at a more beautiful and happy with my family. To find a place to work, to take walks with the children in the park, to build them a beautiful future, to teach them only nice things, to take them to school to stay away from various kinds of crimes. I have an advice for the ones outside, for all the scholars: stay away from the entourages. The entourages will make you steal, rob. They will make you commit various kinds of crimes and is it wrong to get here. Here is a big sufferance and it’s hard to abide, to stay away from your children, from your family, it is very hard. Please think well before getting in entourages and with who will hang out.
My thoughts. I am thinking every night at my little boy and at my family to arrive as soon as possible next to them at home. Millions of thoughts and ideas that I want to do appear in my mind, but all are in vain, because I am here. I like very much to listen to music and to sit in quiet because I am a calm person. I am waiting forward for the day when I will be at home. This is the only thing that I am thinking about.
My thoughts. I am thinking every night about how I will retake my life back into a new beginning, a new life. It’s hard and very hard to retake it from the ground, but with the help of the Good God, I will succeed with everything that I passed by sufferance. I have 3 children and I am thinking every night at them and at their future, do not go through what I went through in life. Another life for them, the very best.
At night I am thinking about; my family, at the liberation, at what work place to find, night by night. I regret the day when I committed this crime, and I am thinking how to build my life so I won’t get here again, because it is very difficult to think that there is nothing more valuable than freedom.
What I’m thinking? Really, what I’m thinking? Only about the day that passed, and the day that will come…
Maybe nothing can be more beautiful and more good than to feel that what I’ve done today is better than what I did yesterday and tomorrow I will start something better. Any day is A BEGINNING for me!
My thoughts. I am thinking every night when I sit in my bed about my children and at how I will react after four years have passed day-by-day. I like listening oriental music. I like Turkish movies, the comedies.
At night, I have moments in which I can’t sleep because of the punishment and I am thinking from where I started and where I’ll finish at my day of freedom; when I will see my children after 4 years and a few months. I repent for getting in these places. Never in my life I will I commit crimes, to arrive here again. I won’t leave my children alone ever.
Dani Gherca (b.1988) lives in Bucharest and works in Romania. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Photo-Video Department, at the National University of Arts in Bucharest (2013) and a Masters of Arts from the Dynamic Image and Photography Department, at the National University of Arts in Bucharest (2015).
In the past when I have discussed prison Polaroids, I have said they are perhaps one of the more significant subsets of American vernacular photography, and that they are not easily found online and that, due to their absence, our perception of prisons and prison life continues to be skewed.
Well, times change and that position now deserves correction. I have noticed a few collections coming online recently. Not least the Polaroids from Susanville Prison on the These Americans website. (Also, check out the new PRISON subsection of the site.)
Online, I have identified some increase in the number of contemporary prison visiting room portraits and, as in the case of These Americans, collections of older, scanned images.
I would suppose that many Facebook users have scanned visiting room portraits and added them to profiles but, only visible to friends, those social network image files have not been reproduced for public consumption or commentary. We might think of Facebook photos and albums as digital versions of the mantlepiece, i.e. seen only by close friends and family.
“Prisoner-complicit” portraits (for want of a better term) are taking up a lot of my thoughts currently.
Yesterday, I had a workshop with the #PICBOD students at Coventry University, in which I assigned readings on Alyse Emdur’s visiting room portrait collection, prison cell phones as contraband, prison cell phone imagery as cultural product, a new Tumblr In Duplo that compares publicly available mugshots with publicly available Facebook profile pictures, and the racket that underpins the posting and removal of mugshots to the searchable web.
Particularly with cell-block-cell-phone images, we should anticipate a glut of prisoner-complicit photos in which prisoners – to a greater degree – self represent.
We should realise that this is the first time in modern history that prisoners have presented themselves to the internet and thus permanently to the digital networks of the globe. My hunch is that this may be significant, but really, it’s too early to tell.
We can note that in this video, most of the images seem to originate from the same cell phone camera in the same prison. We might surmise there is no epidemic of illicit and smuggled images yet. To further this inquiry, I hope to get some information from the maker of said video.
In the mean time, I’ve been in touch with Doug Rickard who administers These Americans as well as the wonder-site American Suburb X. I asked him about his recently published Susanville Prison Polaroids:
Any idea who took them? (any marks/prison-stamps on verso?)
Probably a visitor or another inmate? I have a set (10 or so) of the main inmate (“Johnny”) that you see in many of the “Susanville” single poses, posed with “Brown Sugar” (his girlfriend/wife) and his son “Champ”, a boy that grows from 1-3 years old in the various pictures (see below).
What years do you think they span?
I can only find one date, 10-24-80. You would think that they were 90’s, but for sure, it says 80.
What makes this collection so fascinating to me is that the operator(s) appears to have had free reign of cells, tiers and the yard to make these single and group portraits. One of the PICBOD students at Coventry today wondered where their supply of Polaroid film came and then to where the images were eventually dispersed outside the prison.
We could only conclude that this prisoner and his group of friends had special privileges and access. From all of my research into (vernacular) prison photography – specifically prisoner-made photography – this sort of arrangement/privilege does not exist in American prisons today.
MORE ON THESE AMERICANS
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Thanks to Peg Amison for the tip.
Natasha, Women’s Prison, 2009. © Michal Chelbin
Chelbin’s doleful portraits are striking – something different – and, of course, given their subject matter I was compelled to mention them here. However, without any specialist knowledge of the prisons in Russia and Ukraine, I struggled to think of a worthwhile statement to accompany with them. Is it enough for me just to say that work is beautiful and interesting? I don’t think so.
Therefore, this conundrum becomes the focus of this short post.
The way Chelbin describes it, her portraits are the first step on a journey (of undetermined length) to at least attempt to “know” her subjects:
“When I record a scene, my aim is to create a mixture of plain information and riddles, so that not everything is resolved in the image. Who is this person? Why is he dressed like this? What does it mean to be locked up? Is it a human act? Is it fair? Do we punish him with our eyes? Can we guess what a person’s crime is just by looking at his portrait? Is it human to be weak and murderous at the same time? My intentions are to confuse the viewer and to confront him with these questions, which are the same questions with which I myself still struggle.”
It seems to me that this the type of curiosity we should expect of all photographers and their works; it’s partly how we are drawn into the previously unknown.
But the unknown has its dangers. As Fred Ritchin stated:
“Photography too often confirms preconceptions and distances the reader from more nuanced realities. The people in the frame are often depicted as too foreign, too exotic, or simply too different to be easily understood.”
Beautiful photography is easy to come by these days, and so, for me at least, viewing beguiling portraiture becomes an act of enjoying the beauty but then stepping further and using it to get at something deeper. That might involve a dialogue with someone over coffee; it might be to find comparative examples [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]; it might be to read up on the conditions for juvenile prisoners in Russian prisons; it might be to read the photographer’s statement or even contact the photographer directly to seek the missing pieces.
Photographs, and particularly portraits, are often a door unlocked but often in our busy lives we don’t even try the handle.
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.
In my last post, I suggested the repetition of subject matter in photography is inevitable.
Equally, I’d like to stress that our constant exposure to (predominantly web-based) imagery may likely result in more frequent associations and recall (partial, total, overlapping) between photographers and their works.
Here, I’d like to argue that the gravity of some photography – or rather the gravity of the story it bears witness to – means that ultimately the name of the photographer is inconsequential.
MOTIF, MEME, PERSISTENT THEME
In my last post, I also challenged the notion of plagiarism and inserted the notion of ‘meme’. I was hasty. I used the term ‘meme‘ because meme evolution within host populations can occur without any awareness of said host population; I wanted to infer that repetition, mimicry, copying, mirroring mustn’t always be accorded a conscious origin. Conscious origin is precedent, is ownership, is lawsuit. And I want to live in a world where not everything is subject to ownership and contest.
That said, I want to back-track on the term ‘meme’. Meme is more appropriate for discussing larger shifts, whereas I am really discussing trends. Instead of ‘meme’ I’d prefer to use the term ‘persistent theme’.
FINE ART vs PHOTOJOURNALISM
In Burdeny’s work, the use of a persistent theme (including the minutiae of another artists’ motifs, style) just looks bad. Simply, Burdeny is a prat, but if you want to get uppity you’d argue he has debased artistic notions of respect, brevity and creative integrity.
In the light of Burdeny’s antics (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6), any number criticisms are understandable BUT would anyone level criticisms at photographers in journalism repeating the work of others if it that work pertained to a story that perhaps has not been told enough?
ACID ATTACKS: A CRUDE CRIME OF MODERN TIMES
Shouldn’t ‘persistent themes’ in the photography of journalism be judged on different criteria?
An acid attack is a heinous crime, but made all the worse by lack of awareness, empathy or rehabilitative service. Of course, photography plays second-fiddle to medical intervention in the aftermath of acid attacks, but that is not to say it can’t play its part.
Or are these portraits exploitative? Personally, I don’t think they are. The recurring ‘exploitation’ argument doesn’t develop a discussion – it merely demands you accept or decline the notion of ever-unequal power relations between the operator and subject of a camera. It becomes a discussion about photography and not about the reason the photographer and subject shared a space in the first place.
Personally, again, I don’t think we understand enough about the motives or consequences of these types of brutal attack, and I think portraiture and caption have their role in informing interested parties.
Fortunately, the reports alongside these images describe accessible medical treatment for victims (one woman has had 30 surgeries). More than physical healing though, many of the women have a resolve and psychological determination beyond words. (Read Nick Kristof’s NYT article).
Both Kiviat and Morenatti photographed Saira Liaquat in the space of a year (the captions for her age must be inaccurate) but opprobrium will never be dealt Kiviat or Morenatti for their repetition.
Saira bears witness to her injustice and both photojournalists help her advocate.
Saira’s name and her story matter, the photographers names really don’t.
Eliza was spurred by NPR’s On the Media which “did a story about a series of images that the International Committee of the Red Cross made of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. The ICRC made pictures of the prisoners to send to their families, and allowed each prisoner to choose which particular image would be sent. Naturally, the images the prisoners collaborated in making are very different from the images we’ve seen of them in the news.”
Eliza contacted me and asked me to leave some comments.
I rounded off my comments with a question I think is very important: Could an American photographer complete a project with the access, familiarity and story-telling-verve as Mikhael Subotzky did in South Africa for his project Die Vier Hoeke?
Not wanting to funnel my diatribe down just one web avenue, I copy my comments here …
I’d like to talk about two issues that you point to in your post. First, the general absence of prison imagery in contemporary media and secondly the urge to judge the subjects of the imagery that does crop up.
I doubt highly that Guantanamo would’ve been closed if more photographs had come out of there. While there is no question visuals out of Gitmo were controlled stringently, the MoD had proven itself impermeable to even the most reasonable requests by human rights advocates and legal watchdogs.
The point you make about smiling detainees instantly changing ones perception could be applied to all prison populations. Phillippe Bazin, Luigi Gariglio and Dread Scott have each used straight portraiture to cause audiences think about the individual character of prisoners.
I recommend books by Douglas Hall Kent, Morrie Camhi, Bruce Jackson, Jane Evelyn Atwood and Ken Light. I recommend work by Carl de Keyzer, Joseph Rodriguez, Steve Liss and Andrew Lichtenstein for imagery of prisons beyond the press shots of tiered-cells and orange jump-suits.
More than any of these though I recommend photography of self-representation. I have speculated on it before, and it has been done by Deborah Luster in Louisiana, and by the inmates of Medellin prison, Bogota, Colombia.
All of these photographic interventions are inspiring but barely make it into the mindshare of media consumers. I believe the unforgiven monster who deserves no thought is the predominant version of “the prisoner” in the minds of most Americans and many others in the Western world.
Of course, the invisibility of prisons is a collective tactic. We are molly-coddled by zealous enforcement agencies to whom we’ve outsourced management of transgressors. We have no interest in dealing with the difficult issues surrounding mistakes, mental health, inequalities and human frailty … this is where the “lock ’em up” mentality comes from.
Prisons and prisoners are not scary places because they are threatening and violent, they are scary places because they are wasteful, boring, soul-sapping warehouses. This is the document we never see. America’s prisons are a human-rights abuse.
Photography will play its part, but it’ll take a monumental cultural and media shift to change sentencing and prison policies in the West.
In the meantime, It’d be interesting to see if a long-term project similar to Mikhael Subotzky’s could ever be completed in an American prison?
Ingar Krauss traveled to places in the former Soviet Union, and made portraits of children the same ages, but living in state-run orphanages, juvenile prisons and camps. Many of these kids are not criminals but these “childhood institutions” are the only places society can find for them. (Jim Casper, LensCulture)
A couple of stand-out quotes from Krauss (also from LensCulture):
I recognized that I am especially interested in those children who already have a biography — orphans or criminal children. They have already a story to tell. They seem to be responsible in a way which is not childlike.
Looking at those pictures they seem always to ask: Why me? And in fact this is usually the first question they are asking when I am choosing from 200 orphans in an orphanage, this one or these two. And all I can answer them is that I recognized them, that I feel I know them. Not personally, of course, because I don’t know their stories the moment I decide who I would like to photograph, but in a fundamental way I think I know them.