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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.
This is the first part of a two part interview. Part two was published on published Thursday, 23rd July, 2009.
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You already know the work of Steve Davis, you just don’t know it. Prison Photography‘s most popular post was that of pinhole photographs made by the young ladies of Remann Hall, Tacoma. Steve Davis conceived of and led the workshop.
Concurrent to workshops, Steve worked on his own project, Captured Youth (1997 – 2005) turning his lens on the juvenile offenders and institutions within Washington State. Steve’s introduction to the Captured Youth book reads, “What are officially referred to as “schools” are, in fact, youth correctional facilities – jails for juniors. It’s a world kept secret from the general public, but there are no secrets inside. Everyone is watched.”
Steve and I sat down to talk about the circumstances of the workshops and portraits, the involvement of – and benefit to – the teens, the atmosphere in the facilities and how the practice of photography manifests in sites of incarceration.
Prison Photography: Steve, you photographed in four institutions in total?
PP: How did you pick those?
SD: I fell into it years ago. It was fairly unintentional. I was doing PR photography for an [non-profit] organization called The Experimental Gallery that was trying to bring in art teachers on residencies into juvenile facilities. It came up they were interested in maybe having a photography workshop. I said it was something I was interested in.
And, nothing happened for a couple of years, but then I got a phone call and they asked if I’d like to teach the kids photography and double up as a photographer for their publications.
I thought about it and I asked if I could do something different. I wanted to slow the process down and bring in a large 8×10 camera. I just wanted to do portraits; focus on who the kids were without all the trappings, bars, etcetera that go along with images of young offenders.
So, I went in and worked with the kids [within a photographic workshop format] and then organized outside of that to take in the large camera.
Essentially, I was working under the umbrella of The Experimental Gallery, which had a grant, so I could only be there when they said I could be there. And when they were done and the grant was over, I had no more access.
SD: It started in 1997 at Maple Lane, then later the Green Hill School and Remann Hall. Each of those placements was under the direction of Susan Warner and The Experimental Gallery. Susan is now the Director of Education at Tacoma Museum of Glass. Between time, Susan had a job at the Children’s Museum in Seattle and they supported her doing this and she continued through them. And likewise, since she has worked at Tacoma Museum of Glass they have supported her as well. So the name has always been the same.
Lastly, at Oakridge – that was all my own work, with anyone’s sponsorship.
PP: You returned to Oakridge and the project in 2005. Why did you decide to return?
SD: Well, at the time the project didn’t seem resolved. I wanted to do something a little different. Oakridge is a transitional facility so they are not so much under lock and key, they are allowed to wear their own clothes and they have day jobs. That is where they reside just prior to release.
Soon after [Oakridge] I felt like I was getting to the point where I was taking the same picture.
PP: How did you respond to that?
SD: I tried contacting other facilities. I really wanted to get in to Clallam Bay, which is an adult institution but has a juvenile facility. It is really hidden from the public. But none of that panned out.
Overall, my interest with portraits has pretty much been about people who are controlled and lack all sorts of freedoms. I haven’t only focused on prison; I did a lot of work at an institution for the mentally disabled.
PP: What’s the attraction to these types of subjects?
SD: When I got into the work, I fell in with these mini societies with their own economies and their own rules and they’re all over the place. They are thoroughly hidden by intention from the public – who have no interest in examining it. It doesn’t benefit the public to do that.
I found these places intriguing partly because once you are there in the middle of it, the people you come across, they’re linked together by reasons that are not of their own choice. It’s not the type of community where people have something in common so they create their own economies. They are like dogs in a pound. They might be friends, they might not, but they share common concerns.
I was interested in trying to zero in on these people as individuals with personalities and hopefully open up a lot of questions with the viewer. That s all I wanted to do. I wasn’t trying to reach conclusions or force anything down anybody’s throat. I am just trying to acknowledge that this is 20 miles from home.
All these [sites of incarceration] have names that sound like country clubs! You’d never know that Maple Lane was anything but a nice street or golf club. When you drive past, it is a beautiful place, but you won’t see a kid outside. It looks good from the road, but it is not a place you can walk around.
When I did workshops, they’d love it if I walked them over to the fence; they’d never been! Just little things like that were huge thrills to them.
PP: So the youth were always willing participants?
SD: The first residency at Maple Lane was the best organized. The kids were engaged – some were working with painting and music. The goal was to create a mixed media large exhibition that would go into the high schools of King County, and other areas that had a lot of at-risk youth.
So the kids [inmates] would present the information of their own lives. The message was for the exhibition was generally “You don’t want this”. The young prisoners understood that and got behind it.
PP: Tell us about your portrait work. How much direction did you give the boys as sitters?
SD: Well, they knew the reason why I was there. And all they knew was that their portraits were to go into a catalog. In all, three catalogs were produced. They knew the photos would be published and shown. Other than that, the motivation from these kids to have their picture taken was overwhelming.
I did go in with a bit of theater. I had a large camera, I had lights and I had an assistant. So they were just begging to get their picture taken. It wasn’t hard at all. Direction was minimal. I’d ask them to turn their head or look into or away from the camera. Because I was shooting 8×10 on a limited budget, I’d take a limited numbers of pictures of each person, maybe 2 or 3, and then they were gone.
PP: The personalities of these kids comes through very strong. Are these images an accurate reflection of the individuals in the group?
SD: Yes, each photograph is one accurate reflection. Many of the sitters look very somber, but in fact they’d be laughing their heads off a lot of the time.
Some of the portraits I feel stronger about than others. There are some portraits I don’t have a particular connection with and there’s other I really love. Kids that really struck a chord with me, part of it was the experience of them sitting with me, knowing their character.
PP: Can you talk about a few of them?
SD: This guy. The nicest guy in the world. Total white racist. Had as many black friends as white, but he was basically raised to be a white racist. Once you got to know him you fell into that world, his world. He got along with everybody, but if you asked him he would’ve told you what his views were. I shot a lot of him, indoors and outdoors, more complicated environments.
PP: This portrait?
SD: I like that one. I don’t know if it’s the picture or the kid. But out of all the time I was there, he was the only one where the staff said, “He should not be here.” He was a Mexican who got busted for being a drugs mule from Mexico. Apparently, some rivals burnt his house down. He couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English. He was scared and totally out of his element. But over about three months he started playing the role of the tough guy and you saw this transition. He was becoming what he was assumed to be to begin with. Becoming a hard guy – it was sad.
PP: And this guy?
SD: This was in the psychiatric ward and they were all seriously medicated. This kid here was heavily medicated. He’s got blood on his teeth.
PP: Explain the blood.
SD: He told me he was in a fight the day before and he was walking around like this. Maybe he was continuing to bleed.
PP: Did he always have that look?
SD: Probably not. I didn’t really know this kid. But when I saw him I really wanted to photograph him. I was never demanding, but he was the only one I had to cajole. I said “If you want to make a dent, let me take your picture.” He said okay. That was just his gaze. I really thought his look was gripping. And there was a whole wing of them.
PP: Was it a common attitude among the juveniles, that they knew they were medicated and they knew they didn’t want to present themselves as such to the camera?
SD: He was the only one. I only took two pictures in the psychiatric ward.
PP: And this young man?
SD: He was the only other one I photographed on this wing and he was fine with it. A couple of years later when I was working at Green Hill, I was showing the staff my work and they recognized him and told me he’d got out and was later murdered on the street. He was involved in a knife fight.
PP: This one may stick with viewers but maybe for the wrong reasons? This is your only image where the sitter comes across as full of attitude, possibly angry?
SD: Yeah, he’s got a smirk. This picture never struck me as much as others, but many people have commented. I just never really connected with the portrait.
SD: One thing I learnt from putting the work out is that people respond to these portraits for their own reasons. A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with prison justice. Some of them like pictures of handsome young boys; they like to see beautiful people, or vulnerable people, whatever. That started to blow my mind after a while.
But on the other hand, I don’t want to force people into thinking that these portraits should be considered in one particular context. Just, here they are. Portraits are really charged that way.
PP: My wife’s favourite is the kid blowing gum. What was that scenario?
SD: He was the nicest kids. He was overweight. He had a massive pack of bubble gum and it was in Oakridge, so he was on work release during the day. He seemed like a nice kid and so I asked “could you blow a bubble”. He did. I like that picture precisely because he looks as if he doesn’t belong.
SD: But more than the portraits, the pinhole photographs from Remann Hall are my favorites.
Please return on Thursday, 23rd July to read Part Two of this Interview.