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If you happen upon a copy of the latest issue of Aperture The Sao Paolo Issue (215), you will find — on p.14 — 200 words by yours truly about evidentiary imagery. As part of Aperture’s ongoing What Matters Now? series, I wrote:

In May 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld an order to cut the prison population in California, on the grounds that overcrowding resulted in inadequate health care conditions and preventable deaths.

The majority ruling for the case, Brown v. Plata, was penned by Justice Kennedy who took the unorthodox step of including in the appendix three photographs of prison conditions. Perhaps, in this case, the facts really needed to be seen in order to be believed?

The three images represented a cache of hundreds of low-resolution, anonymous, poorly lit photographs used in the initial filings and ongoing compliance stages of Brown v. Plata. Their inclusion spurned widespread consternation among some law boffins who believed that photographs are too emotive and too imprecise, and have no place in high-profile legal cases. I wonder at what point did the legal community decide written and oral evidence was more legitimate than visual evidence?

For too long there has been an arrogance among photography traditionalists that a professionally-made documentary image can change the world. If we are to truly identify images that change society, then we’d be better looking to legal briefs and not newspaper front pages. The images made by prison officials and legal teams that were used in Brown v Plata changed the daily living conditions of 165,000 men and women.


Hundreds of images from Brown vs Plata are part of the exhibition Prison Obscura.

The San Francisco based law firm Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld that represented the prisoners (plaintiffs) have made available materials from the trial online, including many photos.

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P-338 SVSP-13 Dry Cages or Holding Cells for People Waiting for MHCB



Musician, folklorist and champion of the vernacular Pete Seeger died Monday. His legacy is formidable. The New York Times wrote:

His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.

Part of Seeger’s widespread collection of folk songs took him, in March 1966, to the Ellis Unit of Huntsville Prison in Texas.

He traveled south with his wife and constant ally Toshi and their son Daniel. Bruce Jackson also joined them.

Afro-American Work Songs In a Texas Prison (30 mins.) documents the music African American prisoners used to survive the grueling work demanded of them. The prison work songs derive directly from those used by slaves and plantations and those directly from West African agricultural models.

Bruce Jackson wrote in his notes about the film:

“Black slaves used work songs in the plantations exactly as they had used them before they had been taken prisoner and sold to the white men. The difference was this: in Africa the songs were used to time body movements and to give poetic voice to things of interest because people wanted to do their work that way; in the plantations there was added a component of survival. If a man were singled out as working too slowly, he would often be brutally punished. The songs kept everyone together, so no one could be singled out as working more slowly than everyone else.”

Mechanization and integration of farming and forestry methods would soon lead to the disappearance of the work songs. There was an urgency to record them.

I spoke with Jackson in late 2011, when he said, “It is, to my knowledge, the only treatment (of that genre and era) that had ever been done. It was Pete’s idea and Pete paid for it.”

Seeger understood the contradiction. A significant type of folk music — a music that reflected the very survival of an oppressed group — was soon to be consigned to the history books, and yet that loss signified an improvement in their circumstances. As the film’s narration notes:

“The songs are still there but sometimes something is missing. The urgency is eased. Gone is that tension born of the original pain and irony of the situation that a man who could not sing and keep rhythm might die. The prison is the only place left in the country where the work songs survives. And it’s days are numbered. Another generation or two and its only source will be the archives. But given the conditions that produced the songs and maintained them for so long one can hardly regret their passing.”

Seeger understood people’s stories are wrapped up in their art. And with it their dignity. His curiosity was a rare and beautiful thing.

Watch: Afro-American Work Songs In a Texas Prison 


Bruce Jackson is a prolific prison photographer. Most of his work was made in the sixties and seventies in the South, from his Widelux images at Cummins Prison, his collected mugshots from Arkansas, his 1977 book Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary (Cornell) and his very recent 2013 book Inside The Wire (University of Texas Press) about Texas and Southern prison farms. Bruce Jackson’s book Wake Up Dead Man (University of Georgia Press) is a highly recommended study of work songs in Texas prisons.


San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia is a singular type of prison. It accepts tourists. It also attracts professional photographers. For me, the story of San Pedro has always been the sporadic schedules of guided tours within the prison. First they are on, then they are off.

The very existence of images made by free-wheeling tourists tells us a lot more about the administration’s attitude to security, social priorities and moneymaking than the visit of any single photographer. One might presume that a professional photographer’s visit would be a rare thing  … if it wasn’t for the thousands of photographs made by amateurs.

Still, I like very much a few of Giovanni Cobianchi‘s portraits in his San Pedro Limbo series.



If these images from San Pedro interest you, consider looking at Toby BInder’s work I featured earlier this year in Photos of Infamous Bolivian Prison Go Beyond Common Tourist Snaps

Negrel, Christophe

Prison by Christophe Negrel is shot in French prisons and focuses on the physical regimes kept by prisoners. Some great studies of moment in the portfolio.

Prison guards and child, Juba Prison, South Sudan © Zed Nelson

Zed Nelson goes down as one of my fave photographers of 2012. It’s not like he’s suddenly emerged though – he’s consistently produced thoughtful and cohesive series in recent years. It’s just that many of his bodies of work have fallen on my eyeballs and congealed nicely, for me, this year. Big fan.

I especially like his photographs from the Rio Grande (U.S./Mexico border). I recommend also Nelson’s work from Israel, the London Olympics and of trades in Britain that are slowly disappearing.

The image above is from his series South Sudan which features some solid portraits. For 50+ years Sudan was in civil war. In July 2011, a peace agreement secured independence for South Sudan – the world’s 201st and newest nation state. Nelson photographs the still-learning “nation makers.” The work is cautiously optimistic about the capacity of people to create positive change. The variety of subjects reminds us that peace is collaborative and man-made … and woman-made.


Problems still exist for South Sudan. It must wean of its economic reliance on oil, which accounts for 95% of tax income for the region. Oil will run out in 25 years. The South must maintain healthy diplomacy with Khartoum in the north, too. Worrying reports of violence in displacements camps – particularly against women and children – have surfaced recently. South Sudan has some way to go, but it has come a long way. And photographers have covered the journey. Refugee camps and food crises were covered by John Stanmeyer and Jenn Warren. Tim Freccia made portrats that I can’t make my mind up about, but the most recent and thorough coverage is that by Pete Muller who has been living in South Sudan and documenting the elections and transition to independence since 2009.


Almost without exception, photographs of prisons in Norway featured in international media over the past two years have appeared below a headline featuring the word “luxury” or in simplified articles about the relative comfort of Norwegian prisons. The implication? That no criminals should live in safe, clean, environments and that rehabilitation is folly at best and an insulting waste of taxpayers money at worst.

I’d like to recommend a different take. Six of Fin Serck-Hanssen‘s photographs from Normalising Judgement appear throughout this post.

Serck-Hannsen’s view is neither expressly bleak nor expressly sugary. These drab prisons are nothing to get overly-emotive about and as such probably reflect fairly the predictable life in highly-managed institutions that try to redirect the most antisocial adult behaviours. As you click through to the links included herein, please refer back to Serck-Hanssen’s Normalising Judgement to challenge the “rosy” picture that may have been painted of Norway’s prisons in international media.

Completed in 2008, Serck-Hanssen’s Normalising Judgement pre-dates Breivik’s massacre. The Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security was drafting a white paper, and invited Serck-Hanssen to document multiple prisons. As long as privacy was safeguarded and security was not put at risk, Serck-Hanssen was able to work freely throughout the prisons.

Serck-Hanssen told Mono blog, “In my view, Norwegians in general have the idea that prisons are very human institutions. I wanted to find out how much truth there was in this assumption.”


When mass-murderer Anders Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison by a Norwegian court, it wasn’t at all clear to me how the verdict related to my efforts here at Prison Photography. The court ruled he was sane, yet I am quite happy to describe his ideas as repulsive and his actions as deranged. His offensive gestures and attitudes played out in the court reflected his right-wing islamophobic motives for the murder of 77 innocents on Utoya Island in July 2011.

Breivik has entered the select company of infamous and clearly unhinged murderers that history unfortunately seems to remember. Here at Prison Photography, my concerns are for the majority of American prisoners who are non-violent, poorly-educated, warehoused and given few opportunities to rehabilitate should they find themselves subject to the unusually long sentences the U.S. hands down. Breivik has zero in common with these men, women and children.

Somewhat surprisingly, there is commentary that is spurred by ideas and images about Breivik’s case and that relates to American prisons. Said commentary revolves around the issue of prison conditions. Namely, it centres on the divergent expectations of people in different nations on conditions for convicted criminals.

Even preceding Breivik’s horrendous crimes, there was a characterisation of Norwegian prisons as being “luxury” (the same characterisation/accusation has been aimed at the prisons of other European nations – Austria springs to mind). Sometimes, the term “humane” was used; a welcome alternative given that the term “luxury” often carries an inferred suspicion and jealousy.

In the week following the Utoya Island massacre, innumerable news sources ran stories about how Breivik would potentially serve his sentence in a “cushy” or “super-lux” or, closer to the truth, “progressive” prison.

As it is the highest security facility in the country, it was understandable that international media assumed that Breivik would be held in Norway’s recently constructed (2010) Halden Fengsel Prison. He is actually being held in Ila Prison, near Oslo (details; 14 photos; and the psychology of solitary).


Repeated slideshows often feigned dismay and disgust, or intended to stoke up anger. But it was an anger engineered for international audiences, not Norwegians. Norway was busy mourning, getting to grips with introspection and formalising the logistics to carry out one of the most high profile cases in its legal history. This isn’t to say that Norwegians didn’t feel anger, but they also knew they had to meet Breivik’s unparalleled assault with a dignified and civil response.

In the U.S., a country that routinely hands down the death penalty and Life Without Parole, Breivik’s sentence of 21 years seems comparatively tiny, even foolish.* Most American citizens would balk at the notion. And yet, when the verdict was passed, most Norwegian celebrated the fact that Norwegian law had handed down it’s most severe punishment and that the civility of the judicial system had remained in tact throughout despite the extreme heinous nature of Breivik’s crime (I only consumed news-stories on this event in the UK, so narratives may have differed elsewhere).

If societies are to learn and move forward from such horrendous events then they need something to rally around. In Norway, the humane and sensible legal system, in the response to acts of utter criminality, was an obvious ‘something.’ Americans can never rally around the death of someone sentenced to execution. Even in non-capital offenses, how proud can any U.S. citizen be of a legal system that has sentenced tens of millions to broken prison systems and is responsible for 2.3 million prisoners on any given day?

Prison (or the electric chair) shouldn’t be considered the final chapter. Prison should be considered an early chapter toward mending a broken individual and society’s shortcomings that led a given individual to transgress. Prison conditions are key in successfully rehabilitating individuals and successfully relieving society of future crime and the associated financial costs.

Dylan Matthews explains on the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog that Making prison worse doesn’t reduce crime. It increases it:

It turns out there’s a pretty extensive literature on the effects of harsh prison conditions. One finding that is growing more and more accepted is that harsh sentences, if anything, increase recidivism. [...] Gerald Gaes and Scott Camp found that higher security levels increase recidivism by about 31 percent. Lawrence Bench and Terry Allen randomly assigned prisoners to medium and maximum security sectors of a prison and found that prisoners in maximum security were no less likely to commit in-prison offenses. [...] Geographic isolation increases recidivism. A study from Rafael Di Tella and  Ernesto Schargrodsky found that people who are sentenced to house arrest with ankle monitors reoffend at a much lower rate than those sentence to traditional prison. And a wide array of studies have found that in-prison education programs reduce recidivism while improving quality of life. The findings on the effects of prison conditions on recidivism, in short, are a matter of scholarly consensus.

No prison is a cake walk. All prisoners deserve to be safe. I’d argue all prisoners should be as meaningfully engaged in rehabilitative activities and subject to civil attitudes as is possible. But, I also understand why the idea of retribution for some extends to a desire to see prisoners wallow in poor conditions. I hope I’ve made the case here that Norwegian prison are not luxury and that furthermore shouldn’t be the exception. Better prison conditions means less crime in the future. Better prison conditions means improved individuals.

* The maximum sentence possible under Norwegian law is 21 years, although in special circumstances, and Breivik’s certainly one, judges may extend the sentence as it nears an end.

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All images Fin Serck-Hanssen. Get the book Normalizing Judgement here. Via here & now mono blog. Thanks to Robert Gumpert for the tip.


A week after this blog post went to press, the Prison Reform Trust reported that 77 of the 131 prisons in England and Wales held more inmates than stated capacity.

London’s HMP Wandsworth, which is one of the the three prisons in Elphick’s photographs, is the seventh most overcrowded prison in the UK with 1,191 men being held in a facility only designed for 730 men. Wandsworth operates at 163% capacity.

In total, UK prisons hold 7,300 persons more than they were designed for.

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Hugh Elphick is a young British photographer who, in early 2011, took a cool and curious look at London prisons for his undergraduate photography BFA. The series is Inside.

“I wanted to produce images which intrigued more than shocked,” says Elphick. “I discovered how much prisons actually blend into their surroundings and used this blurring the boundaries, with some of the angles I shot.”

In the series of six photos, Elphick shows us the red-brick exteriors of three prisons – Pentonville, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs. Elphick was working close to Wormwood Scrubs and began to wonder about human rights, the acceptability of the prison system, and if prisons work.

“In England, it is not a commonly known fact [that the UK has the second highest rate of incarceration after the U.S. among industrialised nations] and that it is not something that most people worry about,” says Elphick. “It could be argued that there is more concern that prison sentences are not long enough or that there are moral disparities in sentencing. However, this is not to say that there are not a large proportion of people who see the wider picture.”

Elphick’s focus specifically is about the age of these *famous* Victorian prisons. The Victorian era is steeped in imagery of inequality, squalor and hardship for the working classes. For Elphick, there are points of comparison between the class-stratified 19th century and the inequalities of the modern era and especially today in a time of austerity and cuts in services.

“Victorian architecture offers an allegoric association with harsh systems and possibly with periods such as the late 70 early 80’s economic downturn. Such institutional auras, I believe, explore some of the dilemmas and imbalances of our society,” says Elphick. “These prisons show how little progression there has been in the prison system due to confused government policies.”

Much like the approach of German photographer Christiane Feser, Elphick’s interest is in how these large, alien institutions interact visually with nearby residential communities. Unlike in the U.S., the economic fortunes of the nearby communities in the UK are not tied directly to or dependent upon the operation of a prison. These UK prisons are part of the urban puzzle but quite opposite to the prison-towns of central Wyoming or eastern Washington, which come to rely on jobs as traditional agriculture and industry wane. There is not the same attrition and competition in the job market in central London. Prisons in the UK are not perceived of as big business, partly because by comparison to the bloated U.S. prison system, it isn’t.

In fact, Elphick argues that prisons have almost become mundane in UK cities. He writes in his artist statement:

“The fragmentary nature of London’s development, and its destruction in WW2, have meant a breadth of architectural forms have spread into areas surrounding the prisons. The prisons no longer stand as the monolithic symbols of suffering they once did, and have melted into the architecture of our city. They are taken for granted, dismissed”

This is a peculiar paradox to deal with in images; subjects hidden in plain sight.

“I set out to make a graphic and symmetrical set of images and fortunately there were features which allowed me to do this and at the same time inject some curiosity such as the splash of paint, bench or repaired hole,” says Elphick. “The walls are rigid and literal boundaries which can be translated metaphorically and ironically in many ways to question the justice system and inequalities in society.”

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Inside was exhibited in the three-person show Behind Bars at One & A Half Gallery, London in September, 2011.

© Amy Elkins 269 self-portraits, part of Beyond This Place: 269 Intervals

Last week, I reviewed Photographs Not Taken (ed. Will Steacy, published by Daylight) for It is a book I have enjoyed thoroughly, which may seem a bit perverse as the majority of the tales seem to be about literal death and sullen loss. The other essays are all essentially about metaphorical death – death of an idea; the abandonment of an ideal; fractured and sudden awareness of mortality; or a shattering of photographer-bravado.

Bryan Formhals, many months ago, hollered for more writing by photographers. PNT would be the most recent, stand-out collection of essays to support that call.

PNT features two essays about prison.

Stefan Ruiz talks about his frustration with the limitations on camera during a seven-year stint teaching art at San Quentin State Prison.

“Most of the time [...] I was a photographer in a visually amazing place with all these great subjects, and I couldn’t take a picture,” writes Ruiz.

Amy Elkins recounts a visit she and her brother made to see her dad in federal prison in 2005. She ends up describing a thousand or more photographs she didn’t take.

Call it compulsion, call it therapy, her response during the final 9 months of her dad’s imprisonment was to turn the camera on herself. Amy began making self-portraits began in 2006. Her self-portrait series, Beyond This Place: 269 Intervals became a mini internet sensation in 2007, by which time her dad was out but Amy was not out of the habit. Her self-portraits continue in Half Way There and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.

“All three projects overlap with my father’s story,” says Amy “Half Way There continues as he lived in a re-entry house for 365 days under strict supervision. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere becomes more about re-entering the world and starting over. All in all I’ve shot over 6 years of these portraits.” Amy still photographs herself daily.

You can view the legacy blog posts here and Amy speaks about the relationship between her self-portraiture and family-life briefly toward the end of this conversation with Joerg.


We had been talking here and there. Once a week. Fourteen and a half minutes before hurried goodbyes were exchanged with uncertainty. It was our allotted time to share what we were experiencing. My new chapter in New York. His, in a federal prison, three thousand miles away. My father’s stories were endless. His seventy bunk-mates. Spanish ricocheting off of the concrete walls until it became static, white noise, a flock of birds. The mess hall. The books that had their covers torn off. The Hawaiian friend he made who sang like an angel. The night he woke to flashlights banging along the metal bunks, looking for inmates with blood on their clothes.

The teams that were formed. The chess matches and basketball games. Prison Break on the television in the rec room. The pauses in his voice. We had shared just under fifteen minutes a week for months from across the country. I mostly listened, the imagery leaping to mind, as his words came through the line. These were the things I wanted to make photographs of. By the time I actually had my one and only visit with him while he was in prison, my imagination had grown wild and I was so emotionally charged that I had to place my hands together in order to keep them from shaking, and to hide the amount of cold sweat pooling in them. There were metal detectors, x-ray machines, electronic drug tests, and questionnaires before my brother and I were led into locked waiting rooms, before we were led into a barbed wire walkway, before we were led to the visitors’ area. No cameras, cell phones, keys, wallets, jewelry, hats, purses, food, or gifts were allowed. Just myself, my brother, my father, and a small square yard of short brown grass containing picnic tables, a walkway, and vending machines, wrapped in barbed wire fences, two rows deep. My father, looking aged by stress, wore a tan uniform that seemed to fall all around him like robes. His hair had grown somewhat wild and was whiter than I remembered it. His eyes were youthful and tired.

The photograph was in my head. The moment of panic, of not knowing what to talk about or how to catch up in reality, while families reeled all around us with children and their mothers or grandparents. The vending machine coffees and board games. I longed for this moment to stay preserved, as if it would become more real if I could hold it captive on film.

Or that my story would be more intriguing if I could prove what it looked like. The photograph not taken, a portrait of what we had become, the fear that my family had failed me, the confrontation of unconditional love, a portrait of uncertainty. Instead, I sat with my hands tucked against the worn-out wood of the picnic tables, watching and listening to the sounds of what we were able to be for a moment.


The story runs deep. But how about the images? There’s a touch of naivety in Amy’s self portraits, but no more than any other young artists sussing his or her emotions. The portraits are paired with quotes by her father delivered in those weekly 15 minute calls, a text/image play that adds some depth.

Whatever life these photos have had or will have, I’d like to think they’re ultimately for future generations of her family; mementos of the quirky granny who grew up in the first quarter of the 21st century; the favourite aunt with certainty of narrative but evidence of younger faltering.

After all, we might be miffed if we missed that shot of those things over there, time and time again, but we have no excuse for not recording ourselves. We might hit old age and regret not having the photos to match our memories.

Short-sighted folk may criticise 269 Intervals for its seeming indulgence or vague manipulation; it is strange that images to represent a family temporarily smashed apart by the efficiency of the law are of a pretty las (occasionally in a state of undress) but take a long sighted view and admit you are intrigued by photo-a-day projects. Who hasn’t thought about doing one themselves? … If only you I had the discipline. Between Kessels, Karl Baden, Hugh Crawford, Noah Kalina and Homer Simpson, Amy is in good company.

Amy Elkins was born in Venice Beach, CA, and received her BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, Austria; the Carnegie Art Museum in California; and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minnesota. Elkins is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York, where she recently had her second solo exhibition.


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