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Susan Wright, Texas
Matt Rainwaters is an editorial features photographer, based in Austin, Texas. Photographer Lance Rosenfield told me, “Matt is a specialist at making portraits through bullet proof glass.” For the past few years, Rainwaters has been the go-to-man in the lone star state for interview-room portraits. Collected, these portraits are the series Offender.
As well as Texas prison portraits, Offender includes some images from Rainwaters’ 2010 trip to Guantanamo.
Of Rainwaters’ Guantanamo images, I have never before seen photos like his shots of magazines with crudely redacted images of women inside the pages. The layers, scrawls and obvious surface of those images of images seem to encapsulate the malevolent drudgery that is the deadlock between disfunctional fundamentalism and more disfunctional American legal standards. When two resolute systems that cannot accommodate each other an create faint-compromise, they do so with results of zero utility. Perverse and pathetic.
Unfortunately, when I spoke to Matt, I wasn’t familiar with the redacted-image magazine images, so I didn’t ask him about them. Darn! I hope they spark some inquiries of your own.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
PP: Recently, I spoke with Alan Pogue, a documentary photographer in your home city Austin. Alan said it’s easy to get a photograph in a visiting room but if you need to get inside the living quarters and inside Texan prison facilities you pretty much need a lawsuit. What do you think about that?
Matthew Rainwaters (MR): I’d say that’s fair. Getting access to the visiting rooms is fairly easy if you have a commission and if you have the media contact. Getting beyond that though I’ve never been able to.
The writer I work with and I have had great ideas for stories but getting past the visiting room is not gonna happen. There’s been times when literally I could have walked just past the line and made a much more compelling portait, but it’s just not allowed.
PP: How does one get access to the visiting rooms?
MR: If you go to the Texas Department of Justice website there is a ‘media’ section. Contact the media liaison with details of the publication that you’re working for. Once you have the commission, you tell them the story and the prisoner that you’re planning on working with. The negotiations are straight forward.
PP: In how many Texas prisons have you made portraiture?
MR: I’ve been to various facilities in Hunstville, TX; one in Palestine, TX; and I’ve been to four different facilities in East Texas.
PP: Are there any limitations on the equipment you take in?
MR:You are subject to a search every time you go in. I typically have my lighting kit - two strobe heads, a bag with stands and various modifiers, reflectors, cloths, back drops. I’ve never had a problem getting kit in and out.
PP: How do you shoot through reflective bullet-proof glass?
MR: There’s a few tricks that you can use. Sometimes a polarizer will help. Sometimes if it’s a small enough booth I can have an assistant stand behind me with a dark cloth and that will cut down on reflections and then from there it’s just understanding the fundamentals of photography. Lighting, contrast, and trying to work with the available light.
Trying to use a strobe through glass is next to impossible.
From there it’s just talking with your subject, getting to know them, and then trying to effectively communicate their story that the writer is also telling.
Wayne East, Texas
PP: Can you describe each of your subjects and their particular stories?
MR: I photographed Wayne East. He was convicted of a murder. This is a pretty compelling story. He spent 19 years on death row before a woman started championing his cause. Not incoincidentally, she was the victim’s cousin who believed that East is innocent.
She raised a bunch of money, spent a lot of her own money and basically petitioned to get him off of death row. He was recently paroled. after 30 years for the crime.
PP: It wasn’t a wrongful conviction?
MR: East has always said he is innocent. The question remains: Was he really guilty or is he innocent as she also believes?
The other story I was really close to was that of Susan Wright (top image). My images ran in Texas Monthly for an article titled 193. She was convicted of murdering her husband by stabbing him 193 times.
Susan Wright, Texas
MR: The story goes that Wright’s husband would come home and beat her. The defense attorney never brought up battered woman syndrome.
Well, one day he came home and started rough-housing with their kid, slapped him around, and that’s actually what drove her over the edge and she tied him to the bed and then ended up pulling a knife out and stabbing him 193 times. This whole idea of battered woman syndrome and her being psychologically damaged from years of abuse was never brought up during the defense. So she was up for an appeal for parole and I believe that’s still pending. I don’t know how that’s played out.
PP: There’s another compelling portrait of a female in that story was it the prosecuting attorney or the DA?
MR: Kelly Siegler, prosecutor in the Harris County district attorney’s office.
The court proceedings were aired on Court TV and Siegler was a controversial character because she was very theatrical in her closing arguments. She ended up tying one of her law assistants to the table and climbed on top of him and proceeded to count out 193 stabs, every single one she simulated with her pen. All on TV. A lot of people believe that those theatrics are responsible for convicting Susan.
Kelly Siegler, District Attorney prosecutor, Texas
PP: What was your first prison shoot?
MR: Steven Russell. You may be familiar with him from the movie I Love You Phillip Morris starring Jim Carrey as Russell.
Russell is Texas’ most notorious escape artist. He’ll be in prison for the rest of his life, even though he was originally convicted of a white collar crime. Russell fell in love with a man in prison, escaped to be with him, and then continued to escape over and over again. So what could have been a relatively short prison sentence has been compounded by the crime of escape four times over.
Russell was in the most maximum security prison – the Michael Unit out past Palestine. He has one hour of sunlight each day. He’s locked up in the same way as the most violent offenders, although he’s a completely non-violent offender.
All four times that he escaped were completely nonviolent too, so it’s sort of tragic. Does he deserve to be there? You know, that’s questionable. He did escape but it’s a sad story nonetheless.
Steven Russell, Texas
PP: Let’s move from the US to the US’ outlying territories? When did you got Guantanamo and why?
MR: I went to Guantanamo for Esquire UK in March, 2010.
PP: For how many days?
MR: It was a three day stay on the base.
There’s a lot of misconceptions about Guantanamo Bay. The media portrays it as solely as a detention facility on the coast of Cuba but what I didn’t realize until I got there it’s been a functioning military base since 1906 – a lot of it’s operations have to do with immigration and refueling point for US allies.
MR: We did the media tour of the prison facility. We went to some of the different camps. Saw how, in some cases, some of the inmates live communally, in other cases some of them are locked down. There’s definitely a lot of secrecy still. It’s not as transparent as they would have you believe. There’s some camps that you don’t have access to at all and there’s some camps that they don’t even admit to existing on the island and they don’t show up on any maps. But it’s been proven that there are certain inmates that are held there in a mysterious location.
MR: What is extremely frustrating about photographing at Guantanamo Bay is the strict security protocol. At the end of every day, you sit down with an officer and they look through every single photo.
Sometimes very arbitrary reasons or sometimes very good reasons, they will delete a photo. If they don’t like the way it may represent the prison then they’ll delete those photos too.
Every single photograph goes through this “filter.” I had maybe 60% of the images I shot deleted before I came home.
PP: Is it fair to ask if there’s any points of comparison between Guantanamo and the Texas prisons? Did you feel as though the monitoring is different? Did you feel as though the administrations understood your role as a media person differently? Do you find any irony in the fact that Guantanamo is one of the most secure and notorious prisons in the world but they provide these three days media junkets, something state prisons do not provide?
MR: Within the Texas prison system we’re there to photograph a specific individual. So you’re led into an interview room or booth. I’m there to take a photograph of that person whereas in Guantanamo Bay the subject isn’t a specific person it is the entire facility.
PP: But in both cases, for different reasons, the authority is media savvy and happy to work with you?
Guantanamo Bay a lot of people believe, and quite possibly rightfully so, should be shut down because it is a publicity nightmare for the United States. Everything they’re trying to do with the media at Guantanamo is to try and show how fair, how honest, how transparent, everything is and they’re really trying to deflect this image of it being a detention facility that practices torture.
The institutionally genius part of Guantanamo Bay, from the administration standpoint is no-one is stationed at Guantanamo Bay. People are only deployed to Guantanamo Bay, so no-one stays there for longer than a year-and-a-half and that goes to the highest ranking people, including the admiral who’s in charge of the Joint Task Force.
So, when you ask them about issues of torture or enhanced interrogation methods everyone can default stock answer over and over again. We kept running into, “I don’t know, I wasn’t here.”
Institutionally it’s set up in that way and that was probably the most frustrating thing as a journalist. No one can tell the whole story. The institutional memory of the place is at best a year old.
PP: Your work has a very distinct look. So, how would you say it fits in with other photography made in prisons? And I’m asking that in terms of like who has the power? How does it inform the public?
MR: I’m photographing individuals and as an editorial features photographer. Portraiture is mostly what I do so I’m trying to set up a dialogue with my subject that is fair to them and it’s honest to the story. I have to quickly learn how to make people comfortable, disarm them, get them to open up to you so that you can be fair and honest to them.
I typically have an hour to work with a subject, it’s a different thing than say a documentary looking at a place over and over again. I’m working work within the confines of limited time and semi-limited knowledge of the person and trying to break all that down and create a portrait.
PP: What is the reaction of your subjects? What do they think will come about through your interaction with the camera as a mediator?
MR: A mixture of skepticism and hope. They hope that telling their story will better the legal decision that may be looming. Maybe it’s a plea for an appeal or they just want to tell their story. Maybe they feel like they haven’t been able to tell their side of the story?
But there’s also skepticism because they don’t know necessarily the turns that the story may take and they don’t know what the recent side of the victim’s story, nor the reactions to it.
Imprisoned subjects can be guarded at first. Usually, there’s 10 to 15 minute window where you’re talking on the phone through the plexi glass. I’ve got my camera just sitting there and I’m not taking photos, just taking the pulse of the person and getting to understand them … and that will dictate everything.
Wayne East, Texas
PP: You’re building what could be loosely characterized as a portfolio of visiting room prison portraiture. Is there a common aesthetic that runs through those that you’re either conscious of or you’ve just started to notice as these projects mount up. Not in a pejorative sense, I want to describe Offender as creepy. Is that okay?
MR: Well, it’s definitely that institutional aesthetic – you’re so confined with time and space you literally have to learn to make do with whatever’s thrown at you.
Now that I’ve done it quite a few times I know what to expect; “Am I shooting through plexi-glass today or am I shooting through a screen? Do we maybe have an open room to work with which maybe means I can actually set up a back drop and maybe a light or two? Am I free to interact with the person without talking on a phone?”
It’s a dark subject but it’s also mostly working with honest stories – fascinating stories, but yeah, creepy at times. Ultimately, these are stories that need to be told and that’s why I enjoy photographing, I believe it’s some of the most honest work that I do.
PP: Thanks Matt.
MR: Thank you, Pete.
Steven Russell, Texas.
Tommy and Joe. © Roger Kisby
Roger Kisby, a NYC-based photographer and a friend of a friend, and I chatted briefly during my recent trip to New York. He mentioned he had photographed some prisoners.
It wasn’t your typical situation. Roger decided to get out from under his contract work and leap into the unknown with a road trip. It was intended to test his skills, hone his techniques, and grow his portfolio.
Judging by the results – showcased today on The Awl – Roger succeeded. I like the diversity of personalities in the edit and I like the fact a prisoner double portrait slips seemlessly into the selection too. On this American holiday, it seems a fitting bunch of Americans – of all shapes and stripes (excuse the pun) – to reflect upon. Prisoners are us.
Some photographers are shy about approaching strangers to make portraits. Was this ever a problem for you? Was this any different when approaching inmates?
To some degree, I am always nervous about asking a stranger for his or her portrait. If there wasn’t that element of getting over my fear I don’t think I’d get as much satisfaction as I do when I get a good portrait. It helped that I had a quick pitch about my road trip project. Most people were receptive to it and those that weren’t simply said no and that was that. Even with the ones that said no I still had good conversations. That was the point of the project; for me to engage with people along my trip.
In this case with Tommy and Joe, I was driving out of Marfa, TX when I saw them. I remember distinctly having a conversation with myself about whether I should turn around. I didn’t know if I was legally allowed to take photos of prisoners. I didn’t know how the inmates would react. I didn’t know if it was safe. Ultimately, I realized it would have bugged me for the rest of the trip if I didn’t at least try.
What were they doing?
As I walked up they were doing some grounds-keeping in front of the courthouse. They had someone monitoring them but it wasn’t a guard. Or at least he didn’t seem like one to me. It all seemed very relaxed except for the chains around their ankles.
What do you think they thought about having their picture made?
I wasn’t sure who to ask so I directed my question to all three. The monitor gave permission and the inmates were very much into the idea. I went back to my car grabbed my camera and set up. I tried to work quickly to not take up too much of their time which in retrospect seems silly now; they obviously had time and were happy to do the photos. Honestly I think I was just nervous.
Did you get any of their story?
A little. Tommy had 9 months left for possession. Joe mentioned something about being deported and had 6 months left on an 8 month sentence. One thing I loved was they both asked me if I could send copies of the photo to their moms and gave me their addresses. Which I am doing.
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“Jackson and Christian have pulled back the proverbial curtain so that all can see the American Way of Death.”
- Mumia Abu-Jamal
In the 1979, Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian, a husband-and-wife documentary and research team conducted one of the largest (photographic) surveys of prison life. Jackson and Christian used photography, film and interview to understand and illustrate life on cell block J in Ellis Unit – the Death Row of the Texas Department of Corrections.
Their new book In This Timeless Time (University of North Carolina Press) offers an unflinching commentary on the judicial system and the fates of the men they met on the Row. You can see a gallery of 20 photographs from In This Timeless Time here, and an edit of 74 on Jackson’s own website here.
To coincide with the release Jackson and Christian have done a couple of interviews.
The first Listen, Read: Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian on Their New Book, “In This Timeless Time,” and Jackson on Curating “Full Color Depression” is with the Center for Documentary Studies (also abridged and in the online version of Document, Spring 2012 CDS Quarterly Newsletter.)
A second, very comprehensive interview Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian discuss Death Row in America is on the website of publisher University of North Carolina Press.
In This Timeless Time includes 113 duotone photos, all accompanied by explanatory text, sometimes of considerable length. The book is divided into three significant sections.
First is a survey of their work:
“Instead of just showing those men as they were then and printing in another section their words about their condition then, this book tells what happened to each of them: who was executed, who got commuted, who was paroled and who, after more than two decades on the Row, was found to be innocent,” say Jackson and Christian.
Second is a look at capital punishment across the United States since Gregg v. Georgia (1976) in which the Supreme Court ruled states could resume executions.
Third, Jackson and Christian talk about their own role as practitioners, academics and documentary makers.
“Usually with books like this, you just get a book about the subject with nothing about the intelligence that produced it, or the politics that produced it, or the work that produced it. We thought that should be part of it, too,” says Jackson.
I think this is incredibly significant inclusion. I approach photo-criticism with the assumption power is implicated in its manufacture; I want to turn the lens 180 degrees – so to speak – and investigate how those images came into existence. Jackson and Christian want to talk about relationships, want to talk about their privileged access and reinforce the issue of subjectivity. They made a body of work no one else could and others would make a body of work they could not.
This third introspective, “meta-documentary” section of the book distinguishes it from other books of prison photographs. I’ve yet to get my hands on a copy, but expect a book review in late 2012.
Bruce Jackson, a writer and documentary filmmaker and photographer, is James Agee Professor of American Culture and SUNY Distinguished Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Diane Christian, a poet, scholar of religious literature, and documentarian, is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo
The portraits serve two functions – they are the products of Holbrook’s own therapeutic journey and they are didactic props for the families of victims of murder.
“I want to teach the victims this liberating truth that I have learned,” says Holbrook. “The only way we can truly stop suffering is to love and forgive those who have caused the suffering.”
Seemingly, Death Row was propelled by Holbrook’s interpretation of Christian forgiveness and his need to psychologically heal after seeing images of violence during his work.
For 17 years, Holbrook worked as a private investigator on capital murder cases in Texas. In 1995, he was assigned to a case involving the double homicide of a teenage couple for which he spent many hours examining crime-scene evidence and graphic photographs.
Years later, Holbrook began suffering anxious episodes.
“A psychologist determined that my photographs of that time of homeless and social outcasts shown in a spiritual light, were subconscious attempts to correct the ‘bad pictures’ I saw while working the capital murder case,” says Holbrook.
“Ultimately, I learned that I could overcome PTSD by forgiving those who had caused it.”
As he photographed through windows of prison visiting-room booths, Holbrook directed his subjects in spiritual gestures. The video (below) mirrors the artist’s rationale and is sympathetic to his needs. It bothers me a little that Holbrook feels he is the one to bestow forgiveness. He was a professional in his work. It was work that carried extreme emotional trauma after the fact, and I understand why Holbrook responded outwardly with conviction and a project as strong as his prior distress, but it could be argued Holbrook’s dragged prisoners into his healing process. If a university wanted to interview death-row prisoners they’d need ethics approval from a human subjects research board. I’d like to know about Holbrook’s preparations for the project.
That said, the prisoners he worked with (on the evidence of the video below) are engaged in the project and undoubtedly moved by the Holbrook’s portraits. I assume they were extremely grateful for the visits and discussion with Holbrook.
The stresses of criminal justice work lead to many responses by professionals and while Holbrook’s methods may be unorthodox, it seems he’s gone about them in good faith (pun intended). Better this outward healing than the slow degradation of family life and health that can impact police and prison personnel.
At its core, Holbrook’s work is a call to victims’ loved ones – who have significant sway in the death penalty debate – to oppose state murder.
“In order to get a death penalty, a Texas prosecutor will argue that the victim’s loved ones endorse the death of the accused. It is said that the surviving loved ones, “need closure”. Through my pictures, I argue that this disables the survivor’s ability to forgive the accused. To me, execution is a grave injustice done to the loved ones, ultimately denying survivors the ability to stop suffering.”
We mustn’t forget that Holbrook’s invocation of Christian teachings will help many Americans connect with his work. The work is anti-death penalty and Holbrook’s American audience vote.
I have not come across any project similar to this and I’d be very interested to get the views of the prisoners involved. I think only then can we begin to weigh the value of Holbrook’s works. Who knows, several of Holbrook’s subject may have already been executed?
The overt Christian imagery can be regarded as talking point, for some, maybe a noble purity, but for me it is suffocating. There are sociological causes to crime and there can be political responses. That is not to say I don’t believe in forgiveness; it is just to insist that forgiveness needn’t be monopolised by faith groups but instead incorporated into secular policy, restorative justice programs and sentencing laws that are not overly-retributive.
Forgiveness is an essential part of understanding the causes and cycles of crime. Unfortunately, too often “forgiveness” hinges upon a final apology of the condemned before we fry them anyway.
Left: According to photographer D.K. Langford, this is the Texas vehicle inspection sticker designed from his photograph. Right: This photograph is exhibit A in Langford’s suit vs. the Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. (Source)
At last. I’ve been waiting for one of these legal disputes to have a prison angle! From the My San Antonio News:
“A photographer is suing the state over roughly 4.5 million vehicle inspection stickers that appear to incorporate, without his authorization, an image of a saddle-toting cowboy he created in 1984. Plaintiff David K. Langford wants the court to block the Department of Public Safety from further use or issuance of the stickers, the design of which he says is based on his copyrighted photo, Days End 2.”
“The stickers were produced by state prison inmates under a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) contract with the DPS. [...] The suit says Langford’s photo was illegally appropriated by an inmate who scanned it from a copy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine in 1998.” [My bolding.]
Langford, the photographer, seems quite tenacious here. He argues simply that the State of Texas should be more careful about how it sources its images.
I want to avoid the lazy joke about a prisoner “stealing”. It’s just a shame that when prisoners working for the Texas Correctional Industries which is, for some, a form of modern slave labor (I withhold comment), the products of their work are at the centre of a substantial lawsuit.
This story was brought to my attention by Bob, who says, “I guess Texas is always full of unintended ironies.”
The TDCJ refused to comment, and of course there’s no response from the prisoner. I would want to hear from the prison-artist who originally ripped Langford’s image. He ended up producing a nice piece of graphic design!
With 4.5 million stickers in circulation, the prisoner has quite the visible profile. There’s more of a story here. Texas journalists! Get on it.
Lance Duncan picks okra during a harvest session Friday, August 20, 2010 at the organic garden created by inmates and staff at the Travis County Crorrectional Complex in Del Valle. Duncan was enthusiastic about the garden and said he has been involved with organic vegetable gardening for a couple of years and plans to grow an organic vegetable garden after his release.
Photo by Larry Kolvoord. AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Organic gardens, indeed gardens of any sort, are not uncommon now in prisons of every state. They are, however, used sparingly at only the lowest security facilities. Rikers Island has a program, as do prisons in Washington State. Keep your eye out for more.
Before this post by The Austin American Statesman, I wasn’t aware of the program at Travis County Jail, Texas. Incidentally, Travis County also welcomed Billy Bragg and the JAIL GUITAR DOORS initiative at this years SXSW, which donates guitars to correctional facilities.
In 1964, with the support of a Guggenheim fellowship, Garry Winogrand traveled over four months to fourteen states and recorded an America in transition.
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AmericanSuburbX has republished Carl Chiarenza‘s “Standing on the Corner – Reflections Upon Garry Winogrand’s Photographic Gaze – Mirror of Self or World? Pt. I” (1991) originally in IMAGE Magazine: Journal of Photography and Motion Pictures of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Volume 34, Number 3–4, Fall–Winter, 1991.
Including this statement: “The 1964 Guggenheim Fellowship was awarded to Winogrand to provide him with time to make “photographic studies of American life.” This fact inevitably recalls Robert Frank’s Guggenheim odyssey of a decade earlier. Something to think about—one wants to make comparisons. One wishes there were a Winogrand book comparable to Frank’s The Americans. But there is no such book.”
‘Duck and I’ © Pete Brook
Last month I went to Big Bend National Park, on the border with Texas and Mexico. The Chihuahuan desert is very hot during the day, even in spring. We took an 18-mile day hike, walking before and immediately following sunrise and later in the three hours before sundown.
On the trek out I was surprised to see (and super-amused by) the artistry of some ducks (called cairns in the UK); even in the inhospitable desert, some folks had taken the time and care to build these things. It occurred to me that I’d seen typologies of most things but not these essential, non-owned, geo-marking, petra-sculptures. On the way back, I photographed them.
As I have said before, I am not a photographer and I rarely want to share my images but I’ll share this bit of fun.
‘ROBODUCK’ © Pete Brook