For my first piece for Timeline, I put a spotlight on a collection of mugshots, rediscovered and researched by artist Shayne Davidson. This adds to a her research of hundreds of antique mugshots depicting shoplifters, grifters, counterfeiters, “a wife murderer”, pickpockets and many more.

Made by the St. Louis Police Department between 1857 and 1867, the archive, held at the Missouri History Museum, comprises the oldest extant examples of mugshots in the U.S. Davidson has compiled many of the portraits into a new e-book Captured and Exposed (More).

Quote:

It’s hard to imagine U.S. law enforcement today without its wealth of tracking and surveillance technologies. From facial recognition to the databases being populated with drivers’ license photos of non-criminal citizens, from police scanners tracking all mobile devices in a five-block radius to lampposts that are listening in, federal investigators and police departments nationwide have never had more tools to capture images, scrape data, and monitor movements of people.

But these “smart” technologies (and the laws that allow their use) have developed only relatively recently, and incrementally. It’s not always been so sophisticated. A hundred and fifty years ago, shortly after the invention of photography, some police departments began making images of convicted criminals.

 

Read the full piece and see more portraits: America’s Oldest Mugshots Show the Naked Faces of the Downtrodden, Criminal and Marginalized

 

 

 

“I would like to receive a photo of the new world trade centre buildings, in whatever stage of rebuilding they’re in. A nice view from a nearby building would be nice. Could the photographer take the photograph from a nearby rooftop?” Terrence’s request answered by Anthony Tafuro for Photo Requests From Solitary.

Author’s note: A little under two years ago, I was quite rattled by a new contribution to the ongoing Photo Requests From Solitary project. At the time, I thrashed out some ideas with colleague Gemma-Rose Turnbull, wrote a pointed response, and then let the essay vanish. I return to it here.

Photo Requests From Solitary (PRFS) is a collaborative project that uses art to illuminate the issue of long-term confinement in U.S. prisons. I’m a fan, but I felt that the 2015 collaboration between PRFS and Vice Magazine missed the mark. Since 2015, PRFS has fallen under the stewardship of Jeanine Oleson who has worked on its expansion in New York and California, partly during an artist residency at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. In May 2017, a new round of images made in response to requests from men and women in New York’s state prisons was exhibited at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, NY.

As far as I can tell, the 2015 Vice partnership and article and gallery (the focus of this essay) was the first, last and only time PRFS assigned the creation of images directly through a media outlet. I feel my arguments apply as well now as two years ago (not a lot of new PRFS material has been released). I wanted to tidy up my original essay and tweak it to reflect the moment now in mid-2017. I think the key inquiries below will always be critical to the assessment of the relevance and impact of Photo Requests From Solitary.

— Pete Brook, 10th July, 2017


DOES THE IMAGE MEET THE BRIEF?

Photo Requests From Solitary is one of the most imaginative, expansive and effective political art initiatives of recent decades. Launched in 2009, Photo Requests From Solitary (PRFS) was one project of many pursued by the grassroots activists Tamms Year Ten (TYT) in the campaign for the closure of the notorious Tamms Correctional Facility, Illinois; a facility purpose-built to house prisoners in extreme isolation.

The core concept of PRFS is disarmingly simple. TYT sent forms to men in solitary in Tamms. The form explained that they would make an image—real or imagined—for the prisoner to have in his cell. A prisoner could, in writing, describe an image, offer specific instructions, and return the form. TYT would then coordinate with outside artists to make each image and send a copy to the prisoner.

Founded in 2008, TYT employed multiple tactics to mobilize diverse constituents in the fight to abolish solitary confinement. I’ve followed TYT and PRFS since late 2011 when I met some of the organizing activists in Chicago. One of the impressive things about PRFS was that it was able to move adeptly between artistic and political spaces and it convincingly occupied both; its message and art moved to where it’d have most effect. As far as I know, PRFS collaboration with Vice Magazine’s “Prison Issue” (October 2015) was the first time images were made by a publication’s staffers and freelancers for the project.

When I heard about the partnership, I was curious, a little skeptical (I’ll admit) but mostly I was excited to see PRFS’s latest iteration.

Although PRFS was only one of TYT’s initiatives, it cannot be overstated how important PRFS was to the success of the group’s work. PRFS served both the needs of the men languishing in solitary confinement AND the needs of a public kept largely in the dark about the brutal conditions at Tamms Supermax. It provided an essential, constant and intriguing visual hook to TYT’s efforts; it kept the fight in the limelight. PRFS galvanized activists, forged solidarity with prisoners and kept the issue at the forefront of the public conscience. This three-birds-with-one-stone efficiency is the effectiveness to which socially engaged art projects aspire.

TYT worked closely with then-Governor Pat Quinn who, in 2012, proposed closing the facility. Tamms was shuttered in January 2013. (It needs to be noted that people in Illinois remain in solitary confinement in other wings of other facilities, but no longer is a facility designed solely for extreme sensory deprivation in operation in the Land Of Lincoln.)

That success did not spell obsolesce for PRFS, nor it’s radical methodology. People remained in solitary confinement in states across the U.S. In 2013, Tamms Year Ten partnered with Solitary Watch, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Parsons The New School, and the artist Jeanine Oleson to expand the project into New York and California. In September of 2013, with support from the Magnum Foundation and the Open Society Documentary Photography Project, Photo Requests From Solitary went on public view at Photoville in New York City.

Also in 2013, one of the founding artists of TYT, Laurie Jo Reynolds was awarded the Creative Time Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, and in 2014 Reynolds received an A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art. A new genre—Legislative Art—was defined so as to describe the artworks of TYT and those of the same ilk. Legislative Art involves unglamorous admin, spreadsheets and letter-writing as much as it does poetry, poster-making and marching. Legislative Art strategically and creatively engages with government systems, with the intent to secure concrete political change. For those who had always wondered if art could change society, TYT seemed to provide an answer. Ask the 200 men moved out of extreme isolation. Art had changed their worlds.

All this is to say, TYT and PRFS are worth constant applause. They are also worth constant attention. We should analyze closely what PRFS puts out because due to the collaborative and decentralized nature of the project, contributions and results will vary considerably. Crucial to the ongoing success of PRFS is care surrounding its core principles. All this to say, it is right to judge when and how contributing artists meet the prisoners’ requests.

In a closed call, Vice photo editor Elizabeth Renstrom invited photographers who work regularly for Vice to contribute — including Jason Altaan, Edward Cushenberry, Fryd Frydendahl, Michael Marcelle, Keisha Scarville, Molly Soda, Anthony Tafuro, Ole Tillmann, and Vice photo-editor-at-large Matt Leifheit.

“I hired a blend of new and old contributors that I felt would best carry out their assigned letters for the inmates. I did this to make sure specific requests were sure to be completed,” says Renstrom, who was largely responsible for all the photography in the 2015 Vice Prison Issue.

I think some contributors succeeded. I think some failed. I think a couple failed spectacularly. For the simple reason that they did not meet the specifics of the requests, Jason Altaan and Fryd Frydendahl failed.

Frydendahl was asked, by Sonny, to provide an image of “a woman with a smile that shines as bright as the sun. Not a model type but an ordinary woman who, perhaps, enjoys every moment of her life. Who is not biased or judgmental towards anyone but full of love and compassion for everyone and everything.”

“A face-shot of a woman with a smile that shines as bright as the sun. Not a model type but an ordinary woman who, perhaps, enjoys every moment of her life. Who is not biased or judgmental towards anyone but full of love and compassion for everyone & everything.” Sonny’s request answered by Fryd Frydendahl for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

Judge for yourselves, but I don’t think the girl flashes a smile, nor does it “shine as bright as the sun”. The only warmth to be found in this image is that inferred by the yellow haze of the filter. I wonder what Sonny thinks?

Altaan’s case is less cut and dry. In a literal sense, he did photograph “a female in black leather pants w/ the same material stitches but a different color like hot pink all which can define her figures [sic] w/ a setting of orange and blue in the sky posted up next to a Benz (powered blue) in a park. Black female with hazel eyes.” But it’s clear that Altaan was unable to divest of his trademark 80s, glamor sneer and style.

“I would like a female in black leather pants w/ the same material stitches but a different color like hot pink all which can define her figures w/ a setting of orange and blue in the sky posted up next to a Benz (powder blue) in a park. Black female w/ hazel eyes.” Dan’s request answered by Jason Altaan, for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

Even temporarily, Altann could not put down his soft-focus cynicism. As with his other portraiture, Altaan has managed to match his disdain for fashion-shoot-charade with his clear infatuation with the playfulness of said charade. The skill of Altaan’s work lies in paying homage to the palette and poses of yesteryear’s beauty while simultaneously mocking the consumption, then and now, of versions of beauty. I think Altaan’s work is smart. That he is able to mock the industry as he climbs its rungs deserves applause but I just don’t think his signature look was what Dan had in mind.

“Our hope is that some of the [magazine] issue’s visuals, generated by and for inmates, offer a better understanding of the vagaries of the confined,” writes Renstrom introducing the Vice feature. All well and good, but only if we can conclude that the contributor’s image tallies with the prisoner’s intent. It’s possible that the Prison Issue’s visuals might derail understanding too. Assessing the level of understanding among audience is a difficult task but we can look closely at the images and ask if they appear to serve the prisoner or if they appear to serve the photographer.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not interested in the cheap-and-easy dismissals of Vice we see so often. This article is not of that nature. Vice draws plenty of ire for its tone but, as I have said before, Vice looks to be shedding the snark of its fledgling years.

Regarding the Prison Issue generally: I am a fan. I was grateful to see Zora Murff’s Corrections featured because the growing use of electronic monitoring is a relatively ignored issue in criminal justice debates. I was equally pleased to see Renstrom’s interview with Mark Strandquist about his numerous projects that nurture more sympathetic views of people involved in the prison system. Indeed, Renstrom told me she actively tried to get away from images made by outsiders to the issue. She succeeded for the most part.

On the success of individual images: I admit, it’s difficult to argue with any degree of certainty that the creative output of an artist does or doesn’t meet the visual imagination of a prisoner. Especially, when the medium between them is a hundred-or-so words, a few hundred miles, and all sorts of demographic distinctions. In the cases of Altaan and Frydendahl, however, I think I can structure an argument because their images appear to be closer to their existing artistic signatures than they are to the words of Dan and Sonny.

Friend and colleague Gemma-Rose Turnbull agrees. A specialist in socially engaged methodologies, Turnbull is currently writing a PhD on co-authorship models in documentary photographic practice.

“What I think has happened here is that the artists have not always connected to the fact that the prisoner is the primary audience,” says Turnbull.

She’s right. Photo Requests From Solitary is about process as much as it is about product. PRFS prioritizes prisoners’ visual escape and the process toward realizing their escape means ego, rules and wider expectations must be actively set aside. Easy to say; not always easy to do. Artists pride themselves on individual act and independent vision. Yet, for PRFS, artists operate, effectively, as functionaries. Artists serve the prisoners and serve the politics of the project. What we have to understand is that PRFS is a communication project, not a photography project.

“Images, here,” says Turnbull, “are supposed to help prisoners transcend solitary. Help them feel like they are being heard.”

PRFS is necessarily complex in structure because it attempts to connect people who have been forcefully disconnected by institutions and discriminations. In the absence of common shared media, PRFS builds images out of, and around, the issue of solitary confinement from which we discern our social responsibility and agency. PRFS uses imagery—as a seemingly innocuous thing—so that we might rally around it. Knowing the power of images, though, we realize that this project has been anything but innocuous. It changed political course in Illinois. Described in these terms, PRFS is owned by us all. The longer PRFS exists and the wider it reaches the more shared its possession. In these terms, the insistent artist signatures of Altaan and Frydendahl are out of place.

Of course, sometimes, the artist can just miss the point entirely. Terrence asked for a photo of the new buildings replacing the World Trade Center, shot from a nearby rooftop. Instead, Anthony Tafuro made a picture of the 9/11 Memorial Pool (top image).

In the plus column, Keisha Scarville and Edward Cushenberry met their requests well, I thought.

An African American family at a Thanksgiving/Christmas Dinner, background of kids graduation, sweet sixteens, grandchildren being born, family reunion, birthdays, funerals, church attendance, aspects of a family tree. Grandparents, mother, father and sons and daughters, cousins, wives and husbands. To show/express the unity and growth of family when times are good and bad. I MISS MY FAMILY, BEING THERE FOR THEM. Keith’s request answered by Keisha Scarville, for Photo Requests From Solitary.

“Can the photograph be of my daughter ‘Daddy’s Angel’? Her name is ________ 3 years old.” Christopher’s request answered by Edward Cushenberry for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

I’m not singling out Altaan and Frydendahl so we can all just wag our fingers. I’d like this critique to be instructive. As PRFS moves onward to California, New York and potentially other states, it will not be under the guidance of one hand. Each participant is responsible for understanding the premium placed on service that is core to PRFS. Tamms Year Ten fought against a single facility, but CA and NY have dozens of secure housing units between them. PRFS must maintain prisoners as its primary audience. Those outside prison walls are the secondary audience. Don’t forget that.

“The pictures offer a new way to think about people in isolation,” writes Renstrom. She is correct.

“We don’t see,” Renstrom continues, “what prisoners see, but what they envision. Taken together, these requests provide an archive of the hopes, interests, and memories of people in the hole.”

Think of that for a moment. It is a huge responsibility for a loose cadre of artists to collectively paint the imaginations of hundreds of prisoners. The VICE feature was picked up by The Daily Mail (a right-leaning UK newspaper with a massive online footprint) and featured by an Illinois NPR affiliate. We can presume that each time PRFS puts out new images, they’ll circulate … and they’ll speak, to some degree, for prisoners. It’s an uncomfortable responsibility for a loose cadre of artists to collectively speak for hundreds of prisoners. Uncomfortable because no set of images can stand in for the experiences and thoughts of millions of Americans passing through locked facilities each year. Uncomfortable because we know images are slippery and we know the stakes are high for incarcerated individuals, their families and for anti-prison movements. Uncomfortable because inherent to the method of PRFS is the surrender of decision-making power to the artist and, frankly, we don’t want the artists to fuck up. We like artists and we like the resistance.

To be fair to the Vice contributors, their first introduction to PRFS probably differed to most before them. Renstrom emailed Vice contributors 2 or 3 weeks before the Prison Issue went to print. That email may have been the first time they had heard of the project? By comparison, in Illinois, there was a longer familiarity with the project; word-of-mouth and IRL interactions brought most contributors to the table. Some of those that conceived of the PRFS project made images too. Furthermore, publication of their images was implicit in Vice’s ask, so this may have appeared, and felt, like a standard assignment from a national publication. Altaan, Frydendahl and co. can be forgiven for not realizing that Vice readership is the secondary audience.

Despite my call to criticism here, I don’t want to discourage future collaborations between publications and the PRFS coalition of Parsons, Solitary Watch and TYT. As much as ever before, we need both PRFS’s empowering engagement across prison walls and we need alternative visual reference points for our understanding of the prison industrial complex.

“It’s really important to highlight and promote art activism so people aren’t constantly seeing the same type of photography surrounding prisoners,” says Renstrom. Hear, hear. It is precisely because I’m a huge fan of the open dialogue, the beautiful complications, the equity, and the shared responsibility that are central to PRFS’s methodology that I pay the project such close attention. PRFS cannot become a schtick. It cannot become cultural fodder. PRFS must remain rooted to its co-authorship intent. The photographers have to know they’re making work for the prisoner first, the rest of us second.

“The litmus test must be: Does the image meet the brief?” challenges Turnbull.

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Hopefully not so simple as to forget.

KNIVES, BY JASON KOXVOLD

In 2004, the Schrade Knife factory in Ellenville, NY closed its doors for the last time. Operations were moved to China and, almost overnight, 500 locals lost their jobs. Suppliers and services in the area lost business too and the towns of Ellenville, Napanoch and Wawarsing where photographer Jason Koxvold lives have had to adapt to avoid massive economic injury. In 2015, Koxvold began documenting his hometown and its residents. Since the closures of factories in this pocket of the Hudson Valley, Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch is the biggest employer in the town.

The project Knives, says Koxvold, “serves as a microcosm of the larger issues facing the United States, grappling with the effects of automation and outsourcing, cuts in services, and the rise of identity politics.”

It includes portraits of prisoners, employees and former prison officers. The motif of the knife functions as a literal description of a disappeared economy and identity marker for the people of Wawarsing, but it also acts as a metaphor to the silent violence of both globalisation and incarceration. Whereas a gun mows people down in a hail of bullets, a knife cuts through and guts with a quiet, single swift action. The damage can be deep, precise. An unspectacular assault that is so often lethal.

I admire the way Koxvold has gone about peeling back the layers of his home-region. He managed to gain access into the local prison photographing prisoners. Without trying, he found many locals who had worked in the prison. He often picked up visual threads that ended up looping back to the fact of incarceration.

Koxvold is currently crowdfunding monies for the photobook Knives. We chatted about how the prison industrial complex manifests itself in his work, how it functions in the community and how exactly he got inside.

 

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Do prisons work?

Jason Koxvold (JK): As a Norwegian citizen, my answer would be yes. As a permanent resident of the United States, my answer is not as well as they should.

With that said, during the making of this project I’ve become aware of the work of the Bard Prison Initiative, and programs like that are to be applauded; but in general in this country, it’s my understanding that prisons are seen as a punishment more than an opportunity to rehabilitate. That approach is unsustainable.

 

 

PP: You’re crowdfunding to raise money for Knives book. There’s no mention of the prison in the Kickstarter video but you’ve explained to me that the prison is “woven more deeply through the work than uncaptioned photographs might suggest.” Can you flesh that out a bit?

JK: Because the prison has been a feature of the town for so long, and there weren’t many other opportunities for employment in the region, it turned out that some of the men I photographed for this project had worked as prison guards for large portions of their lives.

Specifically, one of the characters had worked in a prison for 25 years, and possessed a wealth of knowledge about the place. His is the knife with “JUSTICE” engraved into the blade, which seems perverse in some regard; he’s written comments on internet forums defending the use of the phrase “Nigger Chaser” in the name of a knife. So this history of the application of violence is etched deeply into the soul of the town, even as it now finds itself emasculated and adrift.

 

 

PP: At what point did Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch become a subject in Knives?

JK: Fairly early on in my research it became clear that it would be impossible to ignore it.

PP: Why is the prison was important?

JK: The prison looms over the town in some way; it’s an imposing, gothic style building that can be clearly seen from all approaches, despite being a secretive location. At first – not knowing much about the penal system here – I was under the impression that the prison housed inmates from the region, and assumed that would include some former Schrade employees, but primarily they are from New York City. That also changes the makeup of the town to some degree, as spouses and families move to the area to make visitation less onerous.

 

 

 

PP: What did you do to depict the prison?

JK: I made portraits of three men inside the prison, and some exteriors of how the prison relates to the landscape and the town around it.

PP: What did you do to connect (or not) with those incarcerated and working there?

JK: My initial outreach was to the NYS Department of Corrections public affairs office, to explain my project and what I hoped to achieve. I wrote letters to a group of inmates, outlining my idea and asking if they would like to participate.

 

 

PP: You say Knives raises more questions than answers. I like it when you say you’re interested in ambition, failure, hubris. But still, it seems like the failure for us to imagine a different but improving future leads people to think that jobs might come back, and I think that accounts for Trump’s appeal in the Rust Belt. Whether he could spark an impossible resurgence or not, matters less than the fact he promises he will. As best as you can estimate, what is the future for Wawarsing?

JK: The town is working to turn things around; tourism, which was a huge business in the Catskill region in the middle of the 20th century, is what people are pinning their hopes on, and the area has seen considerable growth in that regard in recent years. There’s a great theatre, Shadowland Stages, that produces several plays a year. For some time there was talk of a new casino, but ultimately another town won the bid. In place of that, there’s now a multimillion dollar sports complex in the works.

 

 

PP: What difficulties or successes did you encounter while pursuing a narrative about Eastern Correctional Facility?

JK: My original intent included making portraits of prison guards and interiors of the prison, specifically with the intent of drawing contextual lines between this secure, sanitized inner environment and the world outside, but I was limited to the visiting area and employees were off-limits.

Even determining who was currently incarcerated at Eastern was challenging; I had to file a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request, which operates under an archaic system. After some correspondence, I scheduled visits to make portraits of three inmates, not knowing what they would look like or what to expect; they were very patient and generous with their time.

 

 

JK: Interestingly, photographing the exterior of the prison was more challenging than getting inside. I tend to be quite specific about weather for my exteriors, but DOCS doesn’t necessarily have the infrastructure for rapid approvals of media visits, and certain areas that I strongly wanted to photograph were absolutely off limits.

PP: What are local attitudes toward the prison?

JK: My sense is that there’s a grudging acceptance of it. People probably wish it was elsewhere, but at the same time it provides jobs for the town.

 

 

PP: You grew up in Britain. Do you see the U.S. in a particularly different way?

JK: I grew up around Windsor and Egham, but I’ve spent the whole of my adult life in the United States. I formally arrived a few months before 9/11, and unfortunately, I think that terrible event achieved its goal. 15 years of war – which is the subject of my other major project, currently in progress – has changed the country radically for the worse, in my opinion.

PP: What next for the work?

JK: My intent is to have the book ready to go to press quite rapidly after the Kickstarter is complete; it will include some new images that haven’t been shared before; and some of the work will be shown at the Davis Orton Gallery in June and July.

PP: Good luck, Jason. Thanks for chatting.

JK: Thank you.

 

BIO

Jason Koxvold (b. 1977) is a fine art photographer based between Brooklyn and Upstate New York. Follow his activities through his website, Instagram, Twitter and Vimeo.

Support the Kickstarter for the Knives photobook.

Mesro Coles-El, Indian Pow Wow — 6.12.76, 2013. Courtesy of Nigel Poor and the San Quentin Prison Archive Project

Next week, I’ll be in Bristol with Gemma-Rose Turnbull leading the discussion Photography As A Social Practice. Together we’ll look at  socially engaged art production of contemporary photographers including Phoebe Davis, Nigel Poor and the San Quentin Archive Project (above), Mark Strandquist, Anthony Luvera and others.

Thanks to IC Visual Lab for inviting us down and to Arnolfini for hosting. Gemma is pro: she’s currently co-authoring a pioneering Masters program in Photography with a focus on collaborative practice at Coventry University. We both appreciate image-makers who surrender some control in the image-making process over to others in order to discover new relationships, possibilities, empowerments and photographs. For the talk, Gemma will focus on standout projects that have successfully applied participatory design. Then I will look at the handful of projects that have attempted the same while dealing with the issue of mass incarceration.

As we say in the blurb:

“Socially engaged photographers deal with questions around justice and representation, thereby often discussing practical and historic conventions of photography. Striving to stimulate political and social change, practitioners often document recent societal happenings with compassionate observation.”

We think it’s important territory to tread.

Gemma, I and five others are the PaaSP (Photography As A Social Practice) collective, a loose group that seeks space for discussions on contemporary photography, addressing topics such as ethics and power dynamics. We like to champion practitioners who are good people, good stewards and good image-makers.

In or near Bristol?

7pm. Thursday 18th May 2017

£6/4 CONCESSIONS. Free to ICVL Members

Dark Studio, 2nd floor, Arnolfini

BUY TICKETS

 

 

 

 

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly announces the opening of the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office on Wednesday. Susan Walsh/AP

I haven’t the time to flag every callous and legally-questionable move made by the Trump administration (no-one has) but the establishment of the cynically-titled Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office stands out as a deplorable act of race-baiting, even by Donald’s standards.

The office, which states its purpose as that to assist victims of crimes committed by immigrants, is a in fact a vehicle for Trump’s continued propaganda against immigrants.

Victims of all crimes need assistance. Given that there are fewer victims of crimes by undocumented persons than there are victims of crimes by citizens–because immigrants (documented and undocumented) commit crimes at a lower rate than citizens–VOICE doesn’t even make sense; it pours resources toward a small subset of post-crime law enforcement response.

Trump is demonising immigrants, casting them as dangerous and a threat. This is a lie. Data shows that immigrants are less likely to commit crime, especially violent crime.

The law should function in a way to sanction against all crimes, in all places, perpetrated by any persons against any persons in the same way. Law enforcement should not be advertising, annotating and publicising crimes by a specific group. To do so is the abandonment of impartiality, the abandonment of a key function of the law. To do so is tyranny.

A response from the Immigrant Justice Network landed in my inbox this morning. I’d like to share it.

After 100 hundred days of losing in the courts, legislature, and before the global community, the Trump administration has hit a new low in its attempt to validate an indefensible platform built on racial hatred, fear-mongering, and public deception. The administration has failed to secure credible sources to support its racist claims about immigrants and crime. While the administration has had to resort to inventing lies or “alternative facts” on other issues, with today’s formal launch of the VOICE initiative by DHS, the Trump administration has hit a new low in its exploitation of human loss to serve its own narrow interests.

Operating on the same racist logic that has fuelled the country’s discriminatory policing and mass incarceration of people of colour, VOICE is a shameful propaganda vehicle whose sole aim is to promote fear, social divisions, and the myth of *immigrant criminality*. It says as much about the President’s attitudes towards immigrants as it does about his views towards everyday Americans, whom he thinks he can frighten into passive complicity.

VOICE has no place in our society. As a network that fights for the civil, human, and legal rights of all immigrants, the IJN vehemently denounces this shameful exploitation of tragedy for political advantage.

— Signed Mizue Aizeki (Immigrant Defense Project), Angie Junck (Immigrant Legal Resource Center), and Paromita Shah (National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild) on behalf of the Immigrant Justice Network (IJN)

 

The Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, NY, has just put out an open call for photography related to prisons and incarceration. They’re seeking work about prisons, prison towns, neighbours, families and children, guards, incarcerated persons and returning citizens. Landscapes, portraits and still lifes are offered as suggestions but I’d hazard they’ll take any type of imagery and I encourage the pushing of boundaries.

“This is a topic I have long wanted to present,” says gallery owner Karen Davis. “[Mass incarceration] is not a topic commonly found in our type of gallery.”

Bravo to Davis Orton to getting stuck in to the issue.

Details on how to submit your work here. The dates of the show are June 24th to July 22nd. Deadline for entry is June 6th.

From the open call, Davis Orton will select two portfolios to be included in the show. They’ll go alongside works by Joe Librandi-Cowan and Isadora Kosofsky, who anchor the exhibition.

During the run of the show, the Prison Public Memory Project (one of the most intriguing and layered public research projects I know) will be facilitating film screenings, discussions and presentations relating to mass incarceration.

SUBMISSION DETAILS HERE.

This year marks 200 years since Auburn Prison went in to operation. Joe Librandi-Cowan grew up in the shadow of massive maximum-security prison in upstate New York. Over the past three years, Librandi-Cowan has been photographing the neighborhoods around the prison (now called Auburn Correctional Facility), has been meeting locals, diving into archives and exhibiting the work within the region. His main body of work is The Auburn System, titled after the Auburn System of prison management that added hard labour to the Philadelphia System of solitary, penitence and prayer. His photobook Songs of a Silent Wall brings together archive images of American prisons.

Librandi-Cowan has contempt for the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) in the United States and the manner in which its decentralized and embedded nature allows for its silent persistence. His work mounts a narrative that writes Auburn into the early chapters of the development of the PIC. It’s not a narrative closely examined by others in his hometown. Shaping and presenting the work has not been without its challenges.

It is Librandi-Cowan’s negotiations between critiquing the system and maintaining empathy for ordinary people who work in it–who are also swallowed by it–that fascinate me. Not least, because other image-makers focused on prisons are dealing with similarly delicate negotiations.

I’m grateful to Librandi-Cowan for making time to answer my questions.

Scroll on for our Q&A.

Q&A

PP: How did your work on Auburn Prison come about? Is it still ongoing?

JLC: The project formed into the focus of my undergraduate studies and eventually into my thesis work. The project is ongoing. The work requires a slow, long-term approach. While Auburn is my hometown, I still struggle to understand and represent it visually. My relationship to Auburn, much like the town’s relationship to the prison industry, is complex. I critique and question the history of an institution that has almost always supported the community. The fact that I am a member of the community, forces me to move slowly and carefully.

The history takes a while to sift through, the relationships I make with fellow Auburnians take a while to forge, and figuring out how to represent and combat the prison industrial complex isn’t something that is simple to figure out.

PP: When did you first start thinking of the prison as a topic for your art and inquiry?

JLC: The prison sits in the middle of the city. Many members of local families, generations deep, have been employed by the prison industry. Growing up, I was vaguely aware that some of my family had worked in the prison, but I never gave the prison – which was down the street from where I lived, always in view – much of a thought.

I knew little bits about the prison’s history – that it was one of the oldest prisons in New York State, and that it was the first place to host an execution by electrocution – but the prison, and ideas related to imprisonment, were seldom discussed or explained. I never questioned or understood the prison beyond it being a place for employment.

It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t necessarily normal to have a prison down the street or to have a family member or neighbor that worked inside a prison.

JLC: As I got older, I began to learn more about the prison system, mass incarceration, the economics involved and I began to realize that the prison had a much larger influence on my community than I had initially thought or understood. I began making images to make sense of the complicated role the prison has had with my hometown, with history, and with myself as a young person living in the town. I began photographing in an attempt to make sense of the prison system from the lens of a prison host community, but immediately I realized that it further pushed me to question it.

PP: Where have you presented this work?

JLC: I have presented this at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art, which is Auburn’s local history museum. I have also shown selections of the work at LightWork in Syracuse, NY, and I recently opened a show at SUNY Onondaga.

PP: When you showed it in Auburn itself how was it received?

JLC: Reactions varied – it was positive, negative, and also a bit static/unresponsive. Much of the feedback I received were initial aesthetic responses, and not feedback on the conceptual aspects or questions the work asked.

The prison is a top employer within the community, so people are seemingly reluctant to critique or question the role of the prison, its historical implications, or what the hosting of a prison means for a community.

While showing the work in Auburn, I made it clear within my presentation that I was questioning Auburn’s role within the prison industrial complex – past and present – and that I was interested in finding a way within our community to talk about the increasing problem of mass incarceration within the United States.

JLC: I found this information to be much more difficult to present and discuss within Auburn because so many within my community are directly involved with the correctional system. It was incredibly difficult to find ways to talk about what the work questions without the perception that I was criticizing the generations of people within my community who work or have worked at the prison. Finding productive ways to critically engage, discuss, and question the livelihood of many in my community has been very difficult.

In turn, the response to the work often ends up being extremely limited. Employee contracts won’t allow for correctional officers to discuss some of these issues with me, nor they do not want to talk ill of their work. Many people within my community have a difficult time reasoning with my questioning of the prison system; their relationships to it are complex, deep, and difficult to reckon with.

While many may generally agree that the prison system doesn’t function properly or fairly, Auburn’s relationship to its prison doesn’t seem to allow for a communal discussion on the matter.

PP: You suggested to me in an email that your worry over local reactions have effected the way you edit and present?

JLC: I wouldn’t say that I’ve necessarily changed the work, but I often worry that the project, and that the directness of my stance on the prison industry, may do damage to my community – especially when presented internally. Auburn has bore witness to much trauma. It has direct and early links to the Prison Industrial Complex, the electric chair, and to correctional practices that have helped shaped modern day incarceration. Condensing and presenting that information to the community almost produces and perpetuates this trauma. While it’s not the community’s direct fault, my questioning of these practices and histories has the potential to produce the feeling that the community itself is to blame.

While it is important to combat mass incarceration and the toxic attitudes that prison work can breed, I believe it’s also important to realize and remember that prisons have direct effects on the people who work within them and on the communities that host them.

To me, the ability of many within my community to navigate between the daily entrapment of prison walls and civilian life, begins to raise many questions about how traumas and toxic attitudes are transferred and perpetuated within my community and within society in general.

JLC: Prisons not only affect incarcerated individuals – they affect those who staff the prisons, the people close to those staff too. They affect towns that host prisons and communities from which members are extracted to then be incarcerated.

Prisons shape, and are shaped, by local and regional economies connected to the prison industry, and attitudes towards race – the list goes on. I’m trying to show that the web of the prison industrial complex, while much closer to my hometown than others, is something, often almost invisible, that is local to almost every American.

While I doubt many would pick prison work as their first employment opportunity, it is one of the only financially stable options within the Auburn area. Attacking the industry that financially provides for many within the community doesn’t seem to be the best way to have these conversations or to figure out alternatives or answers to the prison.

As I continue this project, I am attempting to find ways to properly and effectively critique mass incarceration and the Prison Industrial Complex without alienating or further damaging my subjects – whether they be community members, correctional officers, or incarcerated individuals, or returning citizens.

PP: What is gained and what is lost by such slow and reflexive approach?

JLC: Being cautious and thoughtful about how the work may impact the actual people that the work represents will only help further the project and its possible impacts.

Much of the contemporary work on prisons deals with incarcerated individuals, however, I’m becoming increasingly interested in figuring out how conversations and representations of others within the prison industrial complex can impact and change our discussions on mass incarceration. Maybe if it can be shown that mass incarceration negativity effects all within the equation, different sources of change may occur?

I believe The Auburn System functions well outside of Auburn because distance from the work allows for a more general discussion around mass incarceration. But showing the work within Auburn has made me rethink how it should function within the town.

PP: Thanks, Joe

JLC: Thank you, Pete

JOE LIBRANDI-COWAN

Follow Librandi-Cowan‘s work on Instagram, VSCOFacebook, Vimeo, Tumblr and Twitter.

Cunliffe Street, Chorley

Cunliffe Street, Chorley

THE DARK FIGURE

The abuse might be going on in your town. Victims may be under coercion in your neighbourhood. Slaves and masters may be on your street. If that sounds far-fetched take a look at Amy Romer‘s project The Dark Figure* and you’ll learn that modern day slavery is diffuse throughout Britain. In recent years, cases of contemporary slavery, forced work and forced prostitution have been detected and prosecuted in villages, towns and cities in every region of the UK.

While modern day slavery is more prevalent in developing nations, it persists in (what we in the West prefer to call) advanced democratic nations. In December 2015, the UK Home Office estimated that there were 13,000 victims of slavery in Britain. The government referred to the 13,000 as “the dark figure” from which Romer’s documentary project derives its name.

Romer has travelled the UK photographing the streets that her research has uncovered as sites of slavery. I encourage you to learn more about the cases the project covers here:The Dark Figure*.

Romer wants “people to be reminded of somewhere they have lived or visited; somewhere they feel safe.” Do these places look familiar? For me these places look very familiar. I spent my formative years drinking at a pub at the bottom of Cunliffe Street, Chorley (pictured above). In recent weeks, I’ve travelled through Burnley, Batley and Blackburn. During the project, Romer discovered that two traffickers facing prosecution in Plymouth lived one street over from her.

The Dark Figure* is not an easy project to face. It is insistent on revealing the nastiness in our midst. It holds considerable visual dissonance for British audiences particularly. The act of documenting is, for Romer, a form of witness. I wonder to what degree this work propels us to learn more about the hidden issue? I wonder if any victims of contemporary slavery would ever see it? There’s a lot to unpack here, so I was happy Romer was willing to answer a few of my questions. Scroll on for our Q&A.

 

Ash Road, Horfield, Bristol

Ash Road, Horfield, Bristol

Q & A

I expect there are so many sites of imprisonment, slavery and abuse. How do you choose which to photograph?

Sadly, where I photograph is largely determined by and limited to which stories make the headlines. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act has made prosecutions of modern slavery and human trafficking easier to conduct and so we are starting to see an increase in cases and subsequent media attention. However, due to the sensitivity of the such cases, police give very limited information to press for the protection of both victims and suspects. So I’m having to initially search for the stories through the press and then do some digging of my own via the police, The White Pages and Google.

The problem is that many cases will never be known to the press, to me or to the public generally. First of all, it’s a hidden crime so uncovering it in the first place is a significant challenge, which takes a huge amount of police resources and social care. Secondly, victims are often scared of authority and have absolutely no trust to give. They’ve been mentally and/or physically controlled and threatened and are entirely dependent upon their ”employer” or “gang-master”, so even when victims are recovered it is likely they will run away from police or from care, and in a lot of cases, will return to their gang-master or get picked up by another. And we’ll never hear about it.

Putting aside the disturbing limitations, I knew early on that the project would only become effective once I was able to present an abundance of cases, becoming a kind of bleak directory of U.K. modern slavery cases. So as long as I’ve been able to piece together solid and reliable facts and have been able to get to the locations, I haven’t been too fussy about which stories I pick. It’s been more important that I capture the diversity of the problems that exist in the U.K., and to try to communicate that sense of abundance.

SOAS, Russell Square, London

SOAS, Russell Square, London
Batley Field Hill, Batley, Kirklees
Bamfurlong Lane, Staverton, Cheltenham
Bamfurlong Lane, Staverton, Cheltenham

 

What are the strengths and shortcomings of the image (as a medium) in the face of this issue?

The image of modern slavery is in most cases a troubling one. It’s hidden nature makes its reality very difficult to photograph. Instead, we tend to find images made to represent slavery, using actors or “symbols” of slavery such as hands tied with rope or a person trapped behind bars, which are not only inaccurate but are damaging to the understanding of the issue.

We may be exposed to photo stories of sex trafficking or labour exploitation in other countries, but we need to show people its right here in the UK with real pictures of real stories.

How do you describe the photographs?

There is nothing notable I can say about these images on their own. Perhaps that they are deliberately quiet. It is only when coupled with their stories that the pictures become something sinister, at which point the viewer can reconsider the world they thought was safe and familiar to them.

My ultimate goal is to spur a realisation in the audience that such crimes are likely to be happening much closer to home than they imagine.

Ringwood Road, Bournemouth

Ringwood Road, Bournemouth

You explained in the Multimedia Week podcast that when you first approached people you had the idea, the will, but not something tangible to show; no images to share. Then you went out and just started making photographs to demonstrate your commitment and skill. Can you explain how and why that order of events helped or hindered the project.

There’s no right or wrong order of doing anything. But in my case, it had to happen in that order for me to understand the reality of the work I was proposing, and to then move forward with alternative ideas. But you never know with these things until you try. All it takes is speaking to the right person and you don’t know who that person is. (I still don’t!).

I was very lucky at the beginning and experienced a great deal of openness from Devon and Cornwall Police, which possibly led me to believe others would be just as forthcoming, but I came to realise this wouldn’t be the case, which I think is fair enough. Why trust me? The problem is, I’m still battling with the access I want – but this is all part of the job.

What I will say though, is that when I started making photographs I felt a huge sense of relief. Even for someone who relishes in research, I very much reached a point where I just needed to pick up a camera and go shoot.

This style of photography was very different than what I’m used to so it was a very interesting process for me and one which allowed me to continue research from a more positive perspective, as I started shaping my ideas and understanding of the subject through pictures.

Brougham Street, Burnley
Brougham Street, Burnley
Wentloog Avenue, Peterstone, South Wales
Wentloog Avenue, Peterstone, South Wales
Farrier Road, Perivale, Ealing
Farrier Road, Perivale, Ealing

Have you spoken to survivors of modern slavery?

I have. I had one guy reach out to me via Facebook having seen my project. We’re in conversation about working together long distance.

Previous to this, I had been trying to reaching out to NGOs for access to survivors, but had found that even after I had received a “yes” from a number of them, and months worth of email and phone communication, access would eventually be denied for the protection of the survivor(s). Of course, this is understandable and I would refuse to knowingly harm or prolong the process of recovery for any survivor, but I’m not always convinced the refusal has been a decision that has involved the survivor. I think NGOs sometimes struggle to appreciate the impact of a story told first-hand, compared with stories told by actors or through written case studies, which is what readers will usually experience. I’m not sure it’s enough to really reach people.

How do you assess public opinion in Britain on the issue of modern slavery?

“Modern slavery? What’s that!?”

The problem doesn’t just end with the lack of public awareness of modern slavery itself, but deepens with dangerous misunderstandings about the differences between terms such as “sex exploitation” and “sex work”, or “human trafficking” and “smuggling”, for example. These misunderstandings are only intensified when Europe finds itself at the centre of a migrant crisis, tangled with terms such as these that are freely distributed across the mass media.

Hathway Walk, Easton, Bristol
Hathway Walk, Easton, Bristol
North Street, Bedminster, Bristol
North Street, Bedminster, Bristol
Peckford Plce, Brixton, London
Peckford Place, Brixton, London

Are the police doing good work?

There is a lack of consistency throughout the country. I have been largely based in Devon and Cornwall, where their Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, is the UK policing lead for modern slavery, making the South-West surprisingly ahead of the game … for a game that is very far behind.

The 2015 Modern Slavery Act has certainly helped raise public consciousness and agencies are beginning to make good use of the Act. More victims are being identified than ever before. In 2015, 3,266 potential victims were identified and referred for support, a 40% increase on the previous year. There have been an increased number of proactive and reactive police investigations with an increased number of prosecutions and convictions.

But despite stand-out examples of good practice, there is still a lack of consistency in how law enforcement and criminal justice agencies deal with modern slavery. Training for police officers, investigators and prosecutors is patchy and sometimes completely absent. There is also an insufficient amount of intelligence about the nature and scale of modern slavery at regional, national and international level, which hampers the operational response and ability to build knowledge and learn from mistakes.

Union Street, Plymouth

Union Street, Plymouth

Which organisations are doing work to advocate and illuminate the issue?

There are many organisations both big and small. It’s difficult to pick on individuals as I’ve become biased towards or against my own experiences, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the organisation as a whole.

I find it hard to truly know how impactful NGOS are. They seem to all be chasing money from the same pot and in some cases are actively working against each other for their own benefit.

But, to shine a positive light on something I know for sure: several NGOs act as “first responders” under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the government framework which grants 45-days of “reflection and recovery” for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. In this inexcusably short period of time, victims are expected to give evidence of the horrors they have experienced to feared authorities so that “trained decision makers” can announce whether they are to be considered victims of trafficking. During this period, first responders provide housing and support for victims; so if by some miracle a victim feels compelled to recount their experiences to the police, it is surely all thanks to the outreach specialists supporting them.

On a less positive note: this 45-day period given by the government’s NRM, reflects the lack of understanding surrounding the issue. Even if an organisation has been made fully aware what their client has been through, if they do not wish to testify within 45-days, they are not considered victims and their support cannot continue. What will happen to the victim after 45-days? If they are not deported back to the country they were likely escaping from, they will probably end up back within the trafficking system. This is very challenging for support workers and NGOs and I salute all their efforts.

Spa Road, Bolton
Ford Park Road, Mutley, Plymouth
Ford Park Road, Mutley, Plymouth

You’ve already made a newspaper. What else lies in store?

I think something I’ve had to learn the hard way is that it’s all very well making things for a project, but unless anyone sees it, what’s the point?

The reason I made the newspaper is because it would be cheaper to produce and easy to share with the community. People sometimes tell me it would look great in a book. Fine, but who is actually going to buy it other than photographers? In fact, who is going to fund it should be my first question, but it is not my first concern.

My focus for now and for the near future (at least) is to raise awareness. The work needs to be published, and the newspaper needs funding to be printed and shared in the community. It’s a slow game but I’m working on it.

How long do you intend to work on The Dark Figure*?

I’ve slowed the project for the moment as I’m currently in a state of transition, having recently moved to Vancouver, Canada with my partner for his work in science.

Saying that, I’ve had a few fresh ideas for The Dark Figure* since being over here, which I plan to follow up remotely. But naturally, I want to focus my attention towards Canada specific projects whilst I’m here for a few years.

There’s so much more work to be done and that’s partly why I felt comfortable placing The Dark Figure* to one side, as I have no doubt I’ll be exploring new avenues for it in the future.

Longworth Street, Preston
Portugal Street, Holborn, London
Wheelers Lane, Linton, Maidstone, Kent

What has been the reaction to The Dark Figure* so far?

From the people I’ve reached out to, the reaction has been very good. There have been flurries of people contacting me to buy the zine or the newspaper, mostly from the UK but also Europe, which is great.

There has been some valid criticism from news based editors explaining why they would find it difficult to publish, which I’m working on overcoming. My writing needs to be fact-checked in order to be publishable.

Also, outlets need to know I haven’t trespassed. I have never trespassed–there is no need. The Dark Figure* captures the surrounding neighbourhoods, not the actual property in question, and I’m always on the street.

Walker Street, Rawmarsh, Rotherham

Do you ever get overwhelmed? Depressed? Are you hopeful? Talk us through your self-care strategies.

I am cynical and can be full of doubt, all the time. But for me, these stories are about human survival, and despite being totally fascinated by it all, it’s what gives me hope and drives my work forward.

Tragedies exist everywhere, and I don’t think that’s a difficult idea to grasp. But what is difficult, is to believe that such tragedies are happening right in front of us. And I don’t just mean modern slavery. Domestic abuse, addiction, mental health issues and so on, are all issues that can largely exist behind closed doors. By attempting to shine a light onto a truth that otherwise may not be acknowledged, I am doing something useful and positive. It’s a self-care strategy in itself.

Saying that, the news can sometimes overwhelm me when I’m thinking specifically about this work. The migrant crisis. Immigration. I wonder whether the government’s efforts to “face up to modern day slavery” is just another way of deporting the unwanted. Europe is becoming more and more tangled with problems and I wonder what effect it will have on human trafficking, for example. 10,000 refugee children are missing. Where have they gone? Something tells my cynical mind, like all hidden tragedies, we won’t find out the easy way.

A sombre note on which to end. Thank you for sharing your work and thoughts, Amy.

Thank you, Pete.

Be sure to follow The Dark Figure* project on dedicated Twitter and Instagram feeds. Follow Amy Romer on Instagram and Twitter

 

Smart Street, Longsight, Manchester

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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