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Final Words, launched today, is a sprawling documentary project that focuses on the humanity at center of the death penalty in America. It is the brainchild of photographer Marc Asnin known for his brick of a book Uncle Charlie. Well, this project takes Asnin from the personal to the political, but it is no less massive. Asnin’s got form.
Asnin is asking photographers and non-photographers alike to submit selfies as statements against the death penalty. I’ll get to that in a moment but first the project and the cause.
Final Words is a book and traveling exhibition, featuring the final statements of the 515 prisoners executed by the state of Texas since 1982. Final Words will shape and deliver curricula to American high-schoolers. If we can get the youngest generation talking then perhaps we can engineer a future without the barbaric death penalty?
The project statement explains that more than one person every month for thirty-one years has been executed by the Lone Star State:
Just before the execution is completed, each prisoner is given the opportunity to share their final thoughts. [...] It is their words, their final words in this life, that allow the reader to experience the underlining humanity central to the death penalty debate. [...] Final Words comprises a part of the legacy that will live on beyond us and it will stand as a testament to the kind of society we were—who our criminals were and how we implemented our idea of justice. Final Words interrogates our presuppositions about the death penalty. [...] While this book is a document of death—the death of both the guilty and innocent, the criminals and the victims—it attempts to create a dialogue about life.
All this takes a movement. And money. An IndieGogo campaign will launch in a months time.
The editioned Final Words books will cost a pretty penny. Their sales will help raise money to pump simpler versions of the content and curricula into the bloodstream of the education system.
Each page of the book features a prisoner’s mug shot, their age both at the time of the crime and when they were put to death, a description of the crime for which they stand convicted, and their final words.
Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty
In other efforts to corral some cash, Neverland Publications (cofounded by Asnin) and VII Association are collaborating on Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty, an international photo campaign to call for an end to executions in America. Highflying pixelmakers & imagershakers will submitting alongside us flailing Instagram plebs.
Note that the word “selfie” is used as a verb. I like that. Jury’s out as to how much a collection of selfies can effect entrenched moral politics, but it’s worth a try. Social media does nothing if not surprise regularly. And besides, all this just gets people talking ahead of Final Words‘ big fundraising campaign that ignites in October.
As the 501c3 sponsor of the project, VII Photo has asked all its photographers to participate in the selfie campaign. Get yourself in there too:
1. Make a selfie, save it to your computer.
2a. Upload selfie to http://www.final-words.org
2b. Fill out form (name, age, email address, location, how you heard about Photographers Selfies Against the Death Penalty, your preferred photography genre)
2c. Personalize your statement against the death penalty, by completing the following “I stand against the death penalty because …” in 140 characters or less.
Go on, selfie against the machine!
[Oh, if you're wondering how and why Asnin and his colleagues have the last statements of 515 men and women, it is because for some reason the state of Texas keeps a public online database of them. Weird, no?!]
The 15th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty takes place in Houston, Texas on Saturday October 25th at 2pm. Details on the exact location in Houston will be announced later.
Parting Words was just featured on the Huffington Post, for which I wrote a few hundred words. That didn’t seem enough, so I asked Amy some questions about the project to gain a fuller picture.
Prison Photography (PP): You made Black is the Day, Black is the Night (BITDBITN). Now Parting Words. Both are about the harshest imprisonments and sentences in America. Do overlaps between the projects exist? Are the overlaps visible? If so, is the overlap in your personal politics, in the project, or in both?
Amy Elkins (AE): I started the two projects in 2009 and am still wrapping up final details with each. Black is the Day, Black is the Night came first. Through the execution of the first man I wrote with for that project, I stumbled into Parting Words.
Parting Words has taken me a few years to complete and, even now, it remains a work in progress — currently the project has 506 images but it is updated yearly, growing with each execution.
The research behind it all, especially while writing to men on death row (two of which were executed during our time of correspondence) made reading and pulling quotes from the roster of those who had been executed in the state of Texas a dark, taxing experience. Not only was I reading through all of their statements, but detouring into description after description of violent crimes that land one on death row. Honestly, it felt too heavy at times.
PP: What was the impulse then?
AE: I was intrigued that the state of Texas documented and kept such a tidy online archive for anyone to explore. As a photographer (like many, doubling as a voyeur) I already had my own connection to the subject matter through BITDBITN, and I suppose I allowed my obsessive side to surface in order to create a visual archive. It was an important story to tell.
PP: What are your thoughts on American prisons and the criminal justice system?
AE: Over several years of correspondence with five men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who went in as juveniles, I have learned a great deal from the inside about what it is like to exist in the conditions of maximum security and death row units; what those units provide; and what they deny.
A system that uses long-term solitary confinement and capital punishment is broken. Housing someone in infinite isolation has been proven to be hugely damaging to one’s psychological and physical state. This type of isolation breeds behavioral and emotional imbalances that are bound to cause most to remain in a perpetual state of anxiety, depression and anger. Which means they are set up for failure. There is absolutely no way to rehabilitate in such conditions. But clearly rehabilitation isn’t what they have in mind.
I have written with one man in particular who has served 20 years in solitary confinement as part of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence for a non-murder related crime he committed aged 16. He has written about going years talking through concrete walls without ever seeing the men he holds daily conversations with. He spends nearly 23 hours a day in a small cell by himself and when he is let out, he is shackled and permitted to exercise in a slightly larger room by himself for an hour. How he’s gone 20 years in these conditions and not gone completely mad is mind blowing.
That said, most men that I wrote with serving death row sentences were in fairly similar conditions, some having served onward of 16 years in solitary confinement while waiting for their execution. Two of the men I have written with have been executed and through the experience of writing letters to them and in some cases reaching out to family members leading up to such events, I have seen how capital punishment seems to create a continuous cycle of violence, pain and loss within our society. It leaves not one open wound, but several. If there’s closure for anyone, it’s temporary. And unfortunately the loss that the victims family originally endured remains. But now there is a new set of mourners in the mix. The system seems so incredibly flawed and barbaric.
PP: Do archives for last words exist for those killed in other states?
AE: I have yet to come across an archive as in-depth and publicly accessible as the one compiled by the state of Texas.
PP: Are you afraid of death?
AE: I think I’m more afraid of the physical pain associated with dying.
PP: Where do we go when our time is up?
AE: Sounds cheesy, but I think we stick around and linger in some capacity with those who love us the most.
PP: Given the images “read” very differently if the viewer is close or far away, what’s the ideal size for these works?
AE: Ideally I would like to show these images on a smaller scale but include all of them. This forces an intimacy that I want, where the viewer has to get close to each image in order to experience the depth of the project.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
AE: In both projects, I always remained neutral. I refrained from projecting my own feelings into whether I felt those I worked with or made work about were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted. Making BITDBITN, I was more interested in hearing stories from those within prison systems in America, about the psychological state they might be in while in such conditions, while potentially facing their own death. I was interested in discussing with them what it was like to be removed from the world most of us take for granted, to lose memory by being removed from the source of memory, to not always have a strong sense of self-identity. I felt I hadn’t enough information to warrant my own judgment, and so, if I had projected any, neither project would have manifested.
PP: Thanks, Amy.
AE: Thank you, Pete.
In December 2013, Daylight Digital published a presentation of Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night with an accompanying essay by yours truly. The 1,500 words were built upon a conversation Elkins and I began in late 2011.
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.
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.
- – -
“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.