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Christoph Gielen, a photographer known for his aerial views of American suburbs has chosen as his next subject super-maximum security prisons — the most controlled spaces in American prison industrial complex. Supermaxes are of particular interest as they are designed specifically for solitary confinement.
As I wrote for Wired.com, today, America has an unusual thirst for putting people in total lockdown.
In consideration of “the severe mental pain or suffering” it can cause, Juan Mendez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, said that solitary confinement amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Mendez recommended that prisoners never be confined in solitary for more than 15 days.
However, in US prisons, stints in the hole can be longer. Much longer. The California Department of Corrections self-reports the average stay on an inmate in the Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (SHU) is six-and-a-half-years. Many have been in the SHU for a decade or more. In Louisiana, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 have been in solitary for over 30 years.
I’ve also written previously about how images of solitary confinement – despite its widespread use – are difficult to come by.
“The opportunity to visually examine these restricted locations is significant, especially at a time when journalists access is increasingly curtailed,” says Gielen.
Gielen noticed concentric patterns of equivalent interest in the Supermax prisons of Arizona whiel working on his suburbs photo series Ciphers.
American Prison Perspectives is a simple and effective presentation of these design forms. Are gated communities and caged facilities are our preferred housing solutions for the late 20th and early 21st centuries?
With 1 in 100 adults behind bars, America incarcerates more people than any other modern society. Of the 2.3 million men, women and children locked up in the U.S., 80,000 prisoners are in solitary. That number includes hundreds of children.
The rapid adoption of solitary by prison authorities as a means to discipline and segregate has led Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to call it one of the “greatest social experiments of our time.” For some sociologists, the parallels that Gielen drew between housing and prisons go beyond visual similarity. Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab goes so far to ask, “Have prisons and jails become the mass housing of our time?”
The debate on solitary confinement is timely. To quote myself, again:
The Illinois campaign spurred Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to chair the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement last summer. Durbin showed up on Capitol Hill with an actual-size solitary-cell replica.
While for many, the discussion of prisons and segregation can revolve around human rights and legal justice, the issue is particularly relevant today for its economic implications. There was a successful grass-roots campaign to shutdown Illinois’ Tamms Correctional Facility, due largely to the fact that it costs more than $60,000 a year to house a prisoner in solitary confinement in Tamms, compared to an average of $22,000 for inmates in other Illinois prisons. The closure is currently stalled — held up in court following opposition from the AFSCME labor union with prison guards in its ranks.
“In America, particularly, the long view is hardly ever considered. Fiscal views are considered for on a yearly basis,” says Gielen. “Economically, the widespread use of solitary is unsustainable.”
American Prison Perspectives doesn’t end with the images. In 2014, Gielen plans launch a website devoted to the series and host a public online forums. Furthermore, Gielen foresees symposia across the U.S. with former prisoners, prison architects, legal experts, activists, correctional officer union-reps and prison administrators, along with firsthand accounts of solitary confinement and the perspectives of mental health experts on the effects of isolation.
American Prison Perspectives will illustrate how prison design and architecture reflect political discourse, economic priorities, cultural sentiments, and social insecurities, and how, in turn, these constructed environments also become statements about a society.
American Prison Perspectives is supported by Blue Earth Alliance, the Fund For Investigative Journalism and Creative Time Reports and others. You too can help spread the potential reach of the work with your own donation.
I wish Christoph the very best in this ambitious project.
Antoine Ealy, Federal Correctional Complex, Coleman, Florida
You all know I’m a big supporter of Alyse Emdur and her six year project Prison Landscapes, so it was great to feature her work on Wired.com.
“My act as a photographer is not from behind the lens but as a collector of images,” says Emdur. “I see myself as a mediator. These are people who have had no relationship with the outside world so while Prison Landscapes might be a very small gesture, the people who chose to be involved in this project want to be seen; they have their own agency. They want the outside world to know they aren’t the criminals they are stereotyped as.”
Relatively late in the project, Emdur resolved to visit prisons herself to photograph backdrops at a wider angle. In the space of two weeks, she gained access to 10 prisons on the East Coast. Her photographs offer context to the portraits she had already collected. In informal interviews, Emdur was able to get the perspective of the prison administrations, psychiatrists, superintendents, guards – “people who enriched my understanding,” she says.
“Prison portraits are very intentionally framed to exclude the surroundings,” explains Emdur. “They are hiding what the visiting room actually looks like. For me it is very important to show the viewer, who maybe hasn’t been in a prison visiting room, the details, and to place the backdrops in a context.”
It’s gratifying when my interest in prisons overlap with wider issues of visual culture and with the curiosity of mainstream readers.
The article coincides with Emdur’s book Prison Landscapes, published by Four Corners, London is now available. Alyse Emdur is very grateful that Four Corners will donate books to each of the individuals whose portraits feature in the book.
Prison Visiting Room Portraits, An Interview with Alyse Emdur. (Prison Photography)
Up Against The Wall: Prison Snapshots. (New York Times)
Referred to as the “Wall of Shame,” the mug shots here serve as a reminder to staff of the kids that have been killed on the street. Miami-Dade Regional Youth Detention Center, Miami, FL. © Richard Ross
These days, I contend that if photographers are to progress with their craft, they must be both excellent image-makers and energetic self-marketers.
I’ve known Richard Ross‘ work for a long time now so the former has never been in any doubt. Having seen the way his project Juvenile-In-Justice has been rolled out, it is clear he’s in full control of the latter too.
I wrote an article Uncompromising Photos Expose Juvenile Detention in America, published on Wired.com last week about Ross’ 5 years of photographing in juvenile detention facilities. (The article was well received and has led to a follow-up piece about the issue. Stay tuned). Ross was also a PPOTR interviewee.
Furthermore, the project will be presented as a traveling exhibition that will premiere at the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV in August 2012. A photobook is also in the works with essays from Ira Glass and Bart Lubow.
After 40 years of photographing, one presumes that Ross has contacts and allies to help him “market” Juvenile-In-Justice and get it in front of the maximum number of eyeballs. The distribution of this work has been robust and effective – and it could hold some lessons for younger photographers.
I’m just thinking out loud here. My main purpose of this post was to share this five-minute feature on Ross’ juvenile detention work put together by PBS.
Bryan Formhals has delivered some festive cheer for Raw File and I. Picked as one of his Top 15 Photography Websites of 2010.
We’ve still a long way to go in terms of consistent output, but Formhals is on the money about working with quality editors. Keith Axline has been a rock.
“Raw File exploded onto my radar when they brought in Pete Brook as a writer. It’s a perfect example of how a mainstream magazine can tap into the talent of someone who knows their way around the blogosphere. The posts aren’t as frequent as I would prefer, but they’re always carefully selected and well written. You can tell Pete is working with good editors who are helping him refine his message. As much as I believe in independent blogs, there’s no getting around the fact that great editing elevates content. I’ll address this in a future post, but I think you’ll see more mainstream publications tapping into the blogosphere to find talented bloggers to run their photography blogs.”
Bryan confesses the “link-bait” title to his piece, but his selection is in fact very thoughtful and though out. Each pick is a departure point for discussion on a specific emerging, dying or morphing aspect of photo talk, sharing and criticism on the web. A melange of choices. Check it out.
Ernest Morgan, an inmate since 1987, holds his prison-approved CD player. Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired.com
My friend and colleague Matt Shechmeister at Wired’s Raw File just published Life on Lockdown: See-Through Gadgets, DIY Media, No Internet, an article and gallery on idiosyncratic prison technologies.
Matt went to San Quentin Prison with photographer Jon Snyder (@jonsnyder) to tour cells and music studios to report on the see-through typewriters, prison-sanctioned music selections and contracted companies all shaping the security-minded tech-culture at San Quentin.
Not an angle seen or read very often. Well worth checking out.
Over the next few weeks, posts at Prison Photography may thin out a little as I devote a chunk of energies to a new gig at Wired’s photography blog, Raw File. For the following reasons, this is an exciting new departure for me:
- I can call on the expertise of a knowledgeable and calm editor (when I pitch ideas, he says “home run” or “leave it alone”)
- I can piggyback on the back of some ridiculous stats (I guess that’s just Wired for you?!)
- Readers of Raw File have a many more reasons to stop there than they do here (ie, they’re not only tangentially interested in prison reform or in the past somehow stumbled upon my photography commentaries) … and they are harsh critics.
So far I’ve looked at:
- Laura Pannack’s recent work and success – Striking Teenage Portraits Boost Young Photog’s Career
- The alternatives to the Norsigian/Ansel Adams saga – Troves, Caches and Suitcases: Famous Lost Photographs Discovered
- and a Southern California Rapid Transit Employee of the Month Portrait Archive – Fabulous Bus Driver Photos Show Off Mustaches, Sunglasses
I spent last week on the phone to Mark Lubell, managing director of Magnum Photos; David Coleman, curator of photography at the Harry Ransom Center; and Eli Reed, photographer, Magnum member and UT professor.
The upshot was The Story Behind the Legendary Magnum Archive Sale, an article over on Wired’s Raw File blog.
There’s a couple of great quotes, my favourite is this from Coleman, “The boxes are marked with three-initial codes. I haven’t quite broken the codes that correspond to all the photographers. Robert Capa is CAR but then also BOB, which is funny. Bob.”
It was a story I really wanted to report on because I do think this is an astounding “incentivized” outcome for all involved. Read the article for details.
I do still wonder what will happen in 2015, though?