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THIS ART MEGA-GRANT IS A SIGN OF THE TIMES
There’s a host of indicators that prison reform is firmly established near the top of the national agenda. In politics, journalism, art and culture the urgent voices and battles that constitute the discussion and solution-finding around mass incarceration are getting an airing they’ve not enjoyed during the past four decades of unfettered prison growth.
The battles brought by anti-prison activists and families (alongside the soul-searching among the rest of us) may define this moment. There’s a long, long way to go to reverse 40 years of failed policy, but it can only be done … incrementally, faithfully and with a long-view.
The Artist As Activist Fellowship program recently announced by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (RFF) could be part of a continued movement toward justice and toward national healing. Specifically, the RRF wants to support projects that “address racial justice through the lens of mass incarceration.”
There are more-and-more funding opportunities for artists looking at prisons, abolition and racial discrimination. I don’t have time to flag them all, but for this one I had to take pause. The size of this grant is quite remarkable. There’s been a couple of $15K and $25K offerings recently, but the RRF just upped the ante.
You have until December 7th to argue your case for 100,000 USD in support.
Of the 2.2 million people currently in American prisons or jails, 1 million are African American. This rate of incarceration is a 500% increase over the past 30 years, and if current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. Nationwide, African Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons.
This constitutes an epidemic. Particularly so given mass incarceration’s intersection with wealth inequality and economic justice, voting rights, immigration rights, access to affordable housing, and inequitable educational policies. It is exhausting to unravel the complexity of this issue, let alone to design ways to dismantle the social and economic structures that produced mass incarceration as a phenomenon. Yet that is the task before all of us, one that requires an army of creative thinkers.
The 2016 Artist as Activist Fellowship provides the opportunity for creative professionals who are committed to making meaningful progress towards ending mass incarceration to seek a robust set of resources to advance their work. RRF believes that, at their best, art and artists are disruptive. The very nature of being a compelling artist is to generate new thinking and inspire new ways of being, whether through fostering empathy or by proposing radical alternatives to our current systems. If a new world is possible, it is the minds of artists, designers, culture bearers, and other creative professionals who will call it forth.
The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation fosters the legacy of the artist’s life, work, and philosophy that art can change the world. The foundation supports initiatives at the intersection of arts and issues that embody the fearlessness, innovation, and multidisciplinary approach that Robert Rauschenberg exemplified in both his art and philanthropic endeavors.
212 228 5283
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
381 Lafayette Street
Robert Rauschenberg, Poster for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), 1965 (detail). Silkscreen print with varnish overlay, 35 7/8 x 23 7/8 inches.
American photographer Willow Paule has spent half her time, in recent years, in Indonesia. She recounts in PsychoCulturalCinema how she slowly learnt about the past incarcerations of her two friends. Their conversations together led to more questions. Paule writes:
Through my research and conversations with these former prisoners in Indonesia, I discovered that they had faced rampant corruption, extortion, and violence in prison. I found that people were often convicted without solid evidence, that they sometimes possessed only small amounts of narcotics or marijuana but were given long drug distribution sentences, while large time dealers got off with lighter sentences. The person with the fattest wallet got the best treatment.
I learned that mentally ill people often became police targets, and periodically drugs were planted on them in order for police to meet arrest quotas. Once they were locked up, they didn’t necessarily receive adequate care, and they sometimes created turmoil in the cramped cells they shared with the general population. Many people told me disheartening stories about human rights abuses in Indonesian prisons.
My focus is the U.S. prison system, but as I say, dryly and reductively, on my bio page, “problems exist in other countries too.” Paule knows this all too well. She recorded the art that her two friends created as a matter of survival and also their difficult reentry into society. There, as here, jobs are difficult to come by for former prisoners and the stigma of prison lingers long.
The extent to my knowledge on the Indonesian prison system spans the length of Paule’s article. The system sounds dire.
“Prison sentence lengths were decided depending on bribe amounts and prisoners had to pay for a cell or face daily beatings and electrocution in solitary confinement,” writes Paule.
Connecting Paule’s years-old inquiry to today, in the U.S., is Paule’s desire to repeat the methodology and record the stories of returning citizens in America.
There’s no shortage of people in this country with whom Paule could meaningfully connect and weave their history and story over a long period as she did in Indonesia. It takes more than just images though; I encourage Paule and all young photographers to use audio, family archives, collaborative processes and — as Paule did here — a focus on non-photo 2D artworks. Most of all, I encourage young photographers to empower not only individuals impacted by incarceration through the telling of their stories but also to empower small local communities by exhibiting and programming the work with those most closely implicated in the issue.
Simply put, a show at the local community centre is as important as one in the brand name gallery downtown. The former deals in hearts and minds, the latter in sales.
Christopher Onstott is a freelance photojournalist, photo editor, and videographer working out of his native Portland, Oregon. Before he turned to image-making, he bounced around in various jobs — most of the sales. He was once high-interest loan officer, pizza delivery boy and used-car salesman. At the age of 24, he took a leap of faith and signed up for a college photo program.
I may have left Portland, but I still have friends there and interviews in the can, so here is Christopher and I talking about PDX, rural Oregon, disaster kits, the grounding effect of portraiture, setting up a business, and specifically setting up a business with your love.
In summer of last year, Christopher went inside Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as part of the Oregon Project Dayshoot+30. Our discussion begins there. The two images (above and directly below) are from inside OSP. Other images included are from Christopher’s portfolio.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about your decision to shoot in Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).
CO: It was with Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 which was the 30 year anniversary of a day of photographing Oregon by 90 photographers back in 1983. I own the original book One Average Day and the images that stood out to me were the penitentiary photos. In between the usual ‘day in the life’ shots, vineyards, cattle and farmer photos were photographs of a guy in his cell smoking cigarettes.
PP: What was the intrigue?
CO: Prisoners are the under-represented group in Oregon. If you think of Oregonians, you don’t think of prisoners. But they’re residents here.
PP: There’s 14 or 15 thousand people in Oregon’s state prisons these days. Thousands more in county jails.
CO: The Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 was a good reason to get access to OSP which I wouldn’t usually get access to.
I contacted the public liaison office, told them about the project, sent them to the site, sent them a couple of photos of the book that I’d taken on my phone. “Here’s what they did 30 years ago, can I come and shoot?” essentially. They did a security background check and we set up a time. I had only an hour window to shoot. The rest of the day I photographed around Salem.
CO: When I got to the prison, the gentleman I’d been emailing with was not the man I met. The man I’d been in communication with was off work sick. So, immediately there was this disconnect between what I’d asked for and what was being presented to me.
It wasn’t a good experience.
PP: How so?
CO: I wanted to photograph the residents of OSP with a documentary approach, in the vein of the original project. But, my escort’s perception was I wanted take an updated version of the photo from 30-years-ago!
He asked, “So, you want to take this picture?” as he pointed at a print-off of a camera-phone picture of a image in a book! He walked me to a cell, there were two prisoners. He told me I could only photograph one and he gave me 3 minutes. [Laughs]
PP: You had your own art director!
CO: “The image your holding is an example,” I said. “But let’s look at the whole penitentiary.” He said we were not cleared for that, because all the prisoners were about to move for count. There was no flexibility. My escort was accountable to his boss and he didn’t know what had been said before.
PP: What did the subject think about you photographing?
CO: He was totally okay with it. He thought it was cool. I got the impression he knew he was going to be photographed. He was on LWOP (Life Without Parole). Pretty docile.
PP: You think he’s seen the photograph?
CO: I don’t know. I emailed the prison a copy of the photograph in a thank you email.
PP: when you were in OSP, did you cover your tattoos up?
CO: I wore short sleeves. I don’t really think of myself as being tattooed.
PP: Believe me, the prisoners and staff noticed! Do you think there was more to be seen at OSP?
CO: Definitely, just walking in we passed so many people. There was activity and work details everywhere. I was eyeing pictures everywhere but I couldn’t take them. It’s an entire town in there, right? A cultural complex. There’s a million photographs to be made. But I was only to capture a very slim sliver of life.
Still it’s important that there’s at least a representation of prisoners as residents of Oregon 30 years from now.
PP: Shifting gears. You grew up in Oregon.
CO: Grew up in Portland, spent a year in Texas, went to college in Washington State, spent a year in Texas, worked for 4 years at the Spectrum and Daily News in St George, Utah. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather sucks five months out of the year.
PP: There’s lots of buzz about Portland, right now.
CO: Oregon really is two different states of mind.
You’ve got the Willamette Valley and the city of Portland and then you’ve got the rest of the state. The one area that doesn’t get attention is Southeastern Oregon. Not a lot of roads, no freeways, hardly a population density. Very rural.
PP: How do you characterize the Portland photo scene?
CO: I think it’s really supportive. We’ve got ASMP Oregon and Newspace. Photographers will move work back and forth and offer one another help. But, on the otherhand, there’s a lot of photographers, so it can be competitive at the same time.
PP: Journalism, editorial?
CO: Magazines. There’s a lot of international attention on the city so we’ve people coming here asking for images. Those stories tend to lean the way of food, style travel; not hardcore news stories. There’s no tornadoes or hurricanes here!
PP: Maybe an earthquake?
CO: I’ve got my 72-hr disaster kit and spare film ready [laughs].
PP: Have you always been a photographer?
CO: No. I’ve been pizza delivery driver. Worked in my dad’s automotive shop. I was a used car sales man for four years. I’ve been a high interest loan officer. I was a bartender for two years. When my father passed away in 2001, I inherited his camera and I was left with “What do I do now?”
My father always told me to be a salesman. But I couldn’t stomach earning a living by getting one over on people. I’d never been to college, so after he died. I decided to go back to college. I was a freshman at 24-years-old! I did Photojournalism at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.
I took a picture of a girl’s basketball game and they ran it big in the paper and that was me hooked. [laughs]
PP: What’s easier to sell? Photographs or used cars?
CO: They’re both really hard!
PP: How do you feel about photography. Is it as bad as it’s often made out? Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty thinker.
CO: I think the glass is awesome. The fact you can wake in the morning, pick up a camera and go make a living. I don’t care if your shooting fashion or street photography or using your iPhone, you just have to make pictures. We’re a society that is devouring images.
PP: But a photographer still has to package and shape stories. Can’t just churn them out!?
CO: You still gotta be good. My degree was in visual rhetoric; saying something with an image. Manage that and you’ve accomplished something as a photographer. If you’re a one trick pony, then you’re not gonna last.
PP: I recently met Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow recently.
CO: Randy was my mentor at Missouri Photo Workshop last year.
PP: They’re a couple. There’s a few photo couples out there.
PP: Two great photographers. Yourself and Leah Nash are a couple. Is there any element of professional competition between you two?
CO: The secret to being in a relationship with another photographer is to be open to criticism and not to take it personally. If you want to grow, take honest feedback from someone who knows you really well and how you operate.
Leah and I edit one another’s work and we don’t take it personally. There’s no relationship argument to be had over photographs.
We’ve agreed not be chasing the same jobs. We’ve formed a separate company, NashCO (Leah Nash & C. Onstott) outside of our own work stylistically that’s focused on corporate and commercial work.
PP: What you working on now?
CO: Street photography. I’m carrying my camera everyday capturing people in moments.
I’ve been working on a personal project of portraits for 5-years now. Using my Hasselblad. It’s slower. Because when I was at the newspaper I was running around photographing people but not really meeting them, you know? I was encountering into people who … I wouldn’t say were marginalized … but they were people who wouldn’t normally be paid attention to by the news. I wanted to slow down.
CO: In news you’re photographing people in the highest points of achievement in their life, or at the lowest points of their life. The big award, the win at the big race, or the battle with cancer. Most of the time, we’re overlooking the median, the mean of existence.
CO: I want to give those everyday people and experiences some attention. In Nevada, New York, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California. Any time I travel, I try to make portraits.
Pick out the person who is trying not to be photographed and ask their name and their story. Often they reply, “Why me?” and my response is “Because you’re interesting.”
I’ve been the only photographer at some of the newspapers I’ve worked at. I was shooting car accidents, house fires and high school sports. My way to decompress from that is to take pictures that I wasn’t taking on the job.
CO: Used to Instagram a lot. When I got my [digital] Leica I stopped posting on Instagram so much. I try to follow people who are making good pictures because I want to be inspired. I don’t want to see pictures of peoples kids.
PP: Where do you shoot?
CO: I’ve been shooting a lot around my neighborhood, the Alberta neighborhood, because it is a gentrified ghetto. There’s a lot of collision. Walk up Alberta or Killingsworth Streets and there’s a photograph every 10 metres. But here’s the hub of Portland’s gentrification.
PP: What else keeps your eye busy?
CO: Portland Squared. It’s a project that Leah started a couple of years ago. 50 photographers. one square mile divided up into fifty squares and you spend the day shooting a square and ASMP event. Last year, they did a bigger square. 2 x 2 miles and 70 photographers. for 24 hours.
PP: Whose work do you admire here in town?
PP: Anything else to add?
CO: Don’t move to Portland! There’s too many photographers here! [Laughs]
PP: Ha! Thanks, Christopher.
CO: Thank you, Pete.
EYE ON PDX
Giles Clarke is a photographer with the bit between his teeth. Last summer, he wandered into a story about squalid cages being used by El Salvadorian police to hold men accused of gang-related crimes. The pictures — published in the August 2013 issue of VICE — caused some outrage, a lot of gawking and general throwing of hands in the air.
(Click on an image to see it larger.)
It was an unplanned chain of events that led Clarke to the stinking cages. It began on a Saturday night in February of last year when Clarke’s fixer, a local breakdancer who works with youth to divert them from crime, took him to the police station in Quezaltepeque, a town 15 outside of San Salvador.
”I told the police I wanted to ride along and went straight out into Barrio-18 territory,” says Clarke “Bare in mind these gangs are armed to the teeth and control huge swathes of the towns. Armed police units are joined by the military.”
“We responded to a shoot-out at a traffic junction. The shooter had fled and not hit anyone but units swarmed the area. I was told to lie down behind one cop till all clear given. It turned out drunk driver had got in the face of a friend and the friend had popped off a few shots to shut him up. Then we spent another couple of hours searching, pulling kids and gangers over.”
The next day, Clarke returned to the station. A new female officer responsible for caring for victims of domestic abuse asked her captain, “Have you shown him the cages, yet?” The captain of 17 years – who was a bit more enlightened than his rank and file (and also a surfer and guitar enthusiast) — liked to talk about his work and saw value in showing a foreign journalist the cages.
“The captain was very aware of what he was doing [by letting me photograph the cages]. He has a big heart for the issues he is facing,” says Clarke. “The El Salvador legal system is a disaster — with the explosion of gang violence in the last 15 years, the lack of new prisons along with the huge rise in US deportation rates — the justice system can’t handle it so these cages are springing up everywhere. 35 men in each one.”
There were three cages at Quezaltepeque police station — one for Barrio 18, one for MS-13 and one for “common criminals.”
“I took the photo (top) that ended up being the VICE cover shot within 10 seconds of seeing it. I knew it was important. That visual hit me first, then came the smell,” says Clarke. “They shit in the back of the cages. It’s fucking disgusting. Stinking hot. It must have been 95 degrees in there.”
The police officers didn’t want Clarke there and were getting nervous, so he worked quickly and started gleaning as much information as he could from the prisoners.
“One kid (below) had been there 17 months. He was there the longest. Waiting for sluggish El Salvador system. Some of the prisoners have not been charged,” says Clarke.
Another prisoner, in the common criminals cage, was a army veteran with one leg who’d been locked up for protesting the loss of his veterans’ benefits. Most locals don’t know about the cages (CLarke’s fixer didn’t) but some must as the police do not feed the prisoners. Families and friends must bring in food for them. The prisoners spend their time shredding clothes and hand-weaving hammocks to maximize used space and make sleeping on top of one another a fraction less harrowing.
“Every Thursday, they are shackled, brought out the cages, searched, and sprayed down. The police find drugs. They get in there. You can assume guards are paid off.”
Clarke learnt that most of the gang members had been deported from Los Angeles. Many had fled civil wars, or their families had, and they’d lived in East Los Angeles, Long Beach or other parts of L.A.
El Salvadorian gangs are an American product. After serving time in California prisons. many gang members were deported back to El Salvador along with their social tensions, survival modes and high violence. There’s no doubting that Barrio 18 and MS-13 have committed heinous crimes. So far down the rabbit hole, only truces, the reduction of poverty and societal buy-in provides a way out for many of these men. The situation is confounding.
“They all read the bible, just like reading the newspaper,” says Clarke. “I was very surprised. That mixture of high crime and fervent religion is confusing.”
The issues are complex and transborder. Clarke shows us the worst of El Salvador but before we condemn the authorities abroad and dismiss this as someone else’s problem, it might be worth bearing in mind that America has its own cages.
FORTHCOMING GILES CLARKE SERIES ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY
Having lived in the U.S. since the mid-nineties, British-born Clarke has always been aware of the abuse in, and uncontrolled expansion of, American prisons but this story in El Salvador ignited an interest in cages at home. Since this story, Clarke has been photographing in prisons here and abroad.
This is the first of a series of posts featuring Clarke’s work. Prison Photography will bring publishing original images and b-roll from Clarke’s other prison stories, always alongside his biting commentary.
Giles Clarke is a social documentary photographer based in New York City. He is a featured photographer represented by Reportage by Getty and aWHITELABELproduct. A wandering photojournalist and frequent contributor to VICE, his travels in 2014 have taken him from Guatemala to the Netherlands; from Chiapas to Columbia; and from old frontlines in Sarajevo to new frontlines in Ukraine.
All images: Giles Clarke/Getty images
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.
REST IN PEACE, PETE
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.
A NOTE ON JACKSON
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
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.