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Adrian Clarke‘s portraits of female former prisoners in the UK are up front and honest. The ladies insisted they go on the record and speak openly about their experiences in HMP Low Newton, an unremarkable small prison for women and young offenders in the north of England. Each woman reported only good treatment during their incarceration.

Clarke’s work is not sugar-coated. He doesn’t have the answers and his subjects, some of whom have ongoing drug addiction struggles, are searching for them.

The women – although aware of their tough lives – do not paint themselves as victims. They want to step up and take responsibility but when you’re that far down it takes a Herculean effort to wright the ship.

Low Newton, like all good portrait series, offers insight. But it does not tie the loose ends. I am left to wonder about the different definitions of normalcy we carry in our day today lives and if these women will find their own versions of normalcy and stability.

Mostly, Low Newton deserves attention because it appears to reflect a complete respect between photographer and subject.

Adrian Clarke’s portraits of female former prisoners are in the latest issue of The Paris Review.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photographer Mark Woods-Nunn and FLACK, a charitable social enterprise which works with homeless people in Cambridge, UK have put together an intriguing project.

Varsity Mag says, “the attachment of beer-cans to assorted lamp-posts is not another example of misguided modern art. A thin sheet of photographic paper was placed in each can, exposed to the world by only a tiny pin-hole, silently and vulnerably capturing an image.”

Good stuff.

Found via British Photographic History Blog.

Strangeways, Manchester, UK. April 1990. Credit: Manchester Evening News


Brendan O’Friel, the governor in charge of Strangeways during 25 days of famous unrest beginning April 1st, 1990 has backed moves to give UK prisoners the vote.

O’Friel says the controversy is being deliberately stirred up for political reasons. He told the Manchester Evening News:

“I think it is a totally sensible thing to give prisoners the right to vote and then encourage them to vote. Whatever those people have done it is a question of trying to make sure that they are going to make a contribution to the community rather than being a drain on it. Anything we can do to encourage them to take responsibility and think positively is a very good thing.”

O’Friel’s view is not the concensus in the UK. In November 2010, The European Court of Human Rights ruled that denying the vote to prisoners was a violation of their human rights.

However, in early February the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to reject any lifting of the ban, opposing the move by 234 to 22. By doing so they face a class-action lawsuit which could cost the British taxpayer millions in damages for as long as the government denies prisoners their vote.

The ridiculous thing about this is that the figures (approximately 90,000) would barely effect election results. This is expensive folly by Britain’s politicians.

The UK prisoner voting ban has been in place since 1870.

For comparison, The Telegraph reports:

“Many developed countries have some form of prisoner voting including 28 other European nations such as France, Germany and Italy. Russia and Japan exclude all convicted prisoners. Just two states in America allow it while others do not even give the vote back when inmates leave prison. Prisoners can vote in two of seven states in Australia.”


In 2010, judges in Washington State found that felon disenfranchisement laws unfairly impacted minorities as they were more likely to be subject to racial inequalities in the application of policing procedure.

From the ever-excellent Prison Law Blog:

“On Sept. 21, the Ninth Circuit heard oral argument in Farrakhan v. Gregoire, an important case that could affect the voting rights of prisoners in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, California, Hawaii, and Arizona. Back in January, a split Ninth Circuit panel ruled that, in Washington State, “minorities are more likely than whites to be searched, arrested, detained, and ultimately prosecuted,” and that, because “some people becom[e] felons not just because they have committed a crime, but because of their race, then that felon status cannot, under section 2 of the [Voting Rights Act], disqualify felons from voting.”

Washington State appealed and the discussion is likely to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It’s about time both Britain and the U.S. move into the 21st Century. From the Sentencing Law and Policy blog:

“According to a report co-published by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, a national organization working for a fair and effective criminal justice system, disenfranchisement laws are “a vestige of medieval times when offenders were banished from the community and suffered ‘civil death.’  Brought from Europe to the colonies, these laws gained new political salience at the end the nineteenth century when disgruntled whites in a number of Southern states adopted them and other ostensibly race-neutral voting restrictions in an effort to exclude blacks from the vote.”

For more on prisoner and ex-prisoner disenfranchisement, read Michelle Alexander. She condenses the arguments of her very successful book, The New Jim Crow, here.


Strangeways, 20th Anniversary

Ged Murray at Strangeways

Strangeways Riot and Don McPhee


(M.E.N. story found via Jailhouse Lawyer)

The Fear Factory is an overdue and well-reasoned look at how society views transgressions of UK youth. The trailer features a host of informed people making salient points. Why are prisons still a low priority debate?

Visit The Fear Factory website and blog.

It’s no secret I am a fan of Flickr Commons. The UK National Archives just went online.

George Davey was sentenced to one month’s hard labour in Wandsworth Prison in 1872 for stealing two rabbits. He was ten years old. (Source)

Last month, spurred by Michael David Murphy‘s summary opinion piece I started writing about photographers rights.

I have talked before (and here and here) about the diminished freedoms for photographers in the UK. While the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) led many of the actions, it is the support of the whole photographic community that has driven the issue.

The half-penned piece was rendered redundant by last weekend’s “I’m A Photographer, Not a Terrorist” demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London last weekend. The event looked like a hoot (see here, here, here and here)! Nevertheless, I want to throw down a few thoughts and some links.


In November 2009, the UK police issued a memorandum retracting some of the misguidance it had issued; bobbies on the beat were reminded that it wasn’t illegal to take photos. Seemingly, this was more a PR exercise or simply the rank and file didn’t get the memo. Harassment continued.

This situation has totally degraded. The level of trust between the photographic community and police authorities is at an all time low (more here and here). Granted, the Guardian is my sole source here, but it covers the issue so well.

Outside of Britain, incidents have occurred in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the US. Some might say there is a certain amount of baiting employed by some journalists’ tactics (Paul Lewis outside the Gherkin in London springs to mind), but they are merely testing the communication and enforceability of new directives immediately after they’ve been announced by police authorities (in Lewis’ case, directives from New Scotland Yard).

In 2010, I hope to see less harassment of photographers. But, if hassle does continue I hope (and expect) to see its continued reporting to keep the pressure on police chiefs and politicians … particularly in the UK.

And with that I have a site recommendation. Photography is Not a Crime is a good one-stop shop for the unfortunate new genre of photog/authority face-off stories.

The watchdog is compiled by Carlos Miller a Miami multimedia journalist arrested by Miami police after photographing them against their wishes. He goes into his case at length and I still don’t think it is resolved.

Regardless of his motives, Miller’s coverage is comprehensive. As a silo for moments of confrontation and antagonism, the Photography is Not a Crime blog can be a repeated depressing look at abuses of authority.

More than the individual stories – which warrant extended consideration in themselves – it is the cumulative weight and significance of collected incidents that makes Miller’s site a cultural mirror.

Photography is Not a Crime is a must-read for photographers and other media journalists.

I’ve never quite had a holiday like that before; the snowfall you always thought your parents were making up as they described the days when “real winters” hit.

Yesterday, Manchester airport availed itself and I got out. Arrived back in Seattle last night.

So I am back on the horse and I’ve got stuff to say (so does the horse).

Image source


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