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

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Whether the timing was deliberate or accidental, I like that an interview with me about loneliness was published on Valentines Day.

The new website This On That interviews photo people about non-photo things. I was quizzed about solitude, forced isolation, the PCT and other things. Thanks to Barney and Matt for the questions. Here’s my answer to the ninth question of thirteen:

Who is/was the loneliest person you met doing your prisons project? Can anything be done to help him/her?

Not for me to say. Prisons are toxic and they degrade the spirit of any one who is inside.

That said, I’ve met some incredibly lonely people who are locked up but they know they only have themselves to rely on and in spite of the system, hold it together and do immense good. I’ve seen prisoners mentor, educate and counsel other prisoners. They do so because they feel and live the isolation. Incredibly, they can contain that struggle and frustration and turn it into something powerful and good and community-building. I’m thinking here of prisoners who teach remedial math, Spanish, life skills and coping strategies to other, usually younger, prisoners.

Read the full interview here. I’m the second interview. Missy Prince is the first. She talks about gardening. Follow This On That on Instah and Tumblr.

While I was researching the United States Narcotic Farm, I came across this music video for a song named Prisontown by the band the Malefactors of Great Wealth. The history of the Narcotic Farm, its residents, staff, philosophies and experiments is enthralling. There’s so much to confound and surprise we could start any place, so we might as well start with this music video.

The Malefactors are a contemporary band whereas this footage clearly is not. The band here is Pacific Gas & Electric playing in 1970 at the National Institute of Mental Health & Clinical Research Center. (The U.S. Narcotic Farm was renamed the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital and later the National Institute of Mental Health.) Throughout all of it’s iterations, residents and staff just called it ‘Narco’.

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Lexington Narcotic Hospital, 1935. Credit: University of Kentucky Archives

The Narcotic Farm was established to treat drug use and addiction as a health issue and not a criminal issue. Ostensibly, the residents were considered patients, not prisoners. They were thought of not as deviant but as sick.

The administration wanted to rehabilitate as and when it could but, in those times, society, science and the public had a lot to learn if they were to successfully treat addiction. Bear in mind, manufactured heroin had been in the public realm for less than 40 years up to that point, and from its introduction to market in 1898 until 1910 it was advertised as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant.

The Narcotic Farm had several types of resident. One third had been sent there in lieu of custody in other federal prisons. Two thirds, however, were volunteers wanting to kick drugs. They checked themselves in and could leave any time, though most stayed for extended periods.

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As much of the work was trial and error (literally experiments in laboratories) the farm’s levels of success in its treatment of drug addiction varied greatly. The context to all the work was the rural setting. Away from the iniquity of the city, patients worked in the fields, harvesting crops and milking cattle. Sports, group therapies and music were all encouraged as healthy outlets. The walls were relatively porous; local softball teams played patient-teams in the courtyard. No users went cold-turkey, instead the doctors prescribed methadone and other replacements to wean patients off heroin. Hundreds of the best jazz musicians passed through the farm in the 40s and 50s. Concerts and jam sessions were a mainstay.

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So why this footage? Well Malefactors band-member J.P. Olsen is also an author and filmmaker. He directed the fantastic documentary The Narcotic Farmand co-authored the accompanying book The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts. The Prisontown video was made with footage that Olsen did not use for the documentary. The band is Pacific Gas & Electric, an American blues rock band known for their biggest hit Are You Ready? in 1970. I highly recommend the documentary Olsen made with Luke Walden and Nancy Campbell. You can watch The Narcotic Farm in full on Vimeo.

Under its many different titles, the United States Narcotic Farm carved a fascinating history. It’s generally thought it failed to rehab patients (90% of residents returned to opiate addiction after their stays) but much of our knowledge about the chemistry and physical effects of addiction stems from research carried out there. Not all research was ethical by todays standards though. Volunteer patients would sign up to take various drugs–from LSD to barbiturates to marijuana–so that they might be monitored during withdrawal or medical interventions.

The Narcotic Farm succeeded in unmasking many prescription drugs and tranquilizers as addictive when they’d only been marketed previously as positive agents. To give you a sense of the open and relaxed approach to research see this brief clip:

 

 

Some of the payments to volunteer-patients in these trials were made in drugs–heroin, methadone included. The patients could even put these drugs “in the bank” so to speak, so that they might, at a later date, go to the dispensary, claim and imbibe them. If it sounds crazy it’s because, in all honesty, it is.

Five years after the band footage (top) was made, the institution was designated as a federal psychiatric hospital. All volunteer patients were moved out and the Addiction Research Center was closed down. It is now the Federal Medical Center with an adjacent minimum security camp and 1,900 prisoners in total.

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The United States Narcotic Farm represents a fascinating, surprising chapter in American medical and correctional history. There’s many great resources online which I encourage you to read: an academic history of the farm by Erin Weiss; a brief history of the farm by the Alcohol and Drugs History Society; an interview with Narcotic Farm book author Dr. Nancy Campbell by the Public Library of Science; some reflections by documentary maker Luke Walden; an interview with Olsen and Campbell on NPR; a feature on Kentucky Educational Television; a slideshow of images from the farm on Scientific American; and a slideshow on the website of the Lexington Herald Leader newspaper.

To close, I went on an Internet joyride scouring for images from the farm and dump the most intriguing here. Note, several made by Arthur Rothstein are staged promotional shots, which you can read more about here.)

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Intake. Credit: Unknown.
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Courtesy of Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen & Luke Walden. Credit :Arthur Rothstein, Kentucky Historical Society
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Courtesy of Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen & Luke Walden, “The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts”, Kentucky Historical Society
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At its peak, the institution’s award-winning dairy herd numbered more than ninety cows. Credit: Unknown.
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Nurses clip patients fingernails. Manicures and pedicures were part of the early program to improve patients’ personal hygiene and were considered part of “the cure”. Circa 1940s. Credit: Kentucky Historical Society
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‘Narcotic Farm at Lexington, Kentucky, Circa. 1950.’ Furniture was made in the institution’s woodshop was used throughout the prison and was also sent to various federal agencies, including the Treasury Department and, in later years, NASA. Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Kentucky Historical Society
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Male and female patients perform a Latin dance accompanied by Marco’s big band. Former patient Eddie Flowers recalls: “We used to put on a big extravaganza with sets and everything. It was one of the good times down there in Lexington, Kentucky. And everybody came to the show-the females, the personnel, the males, you know. For that couple of hours we were just in a whole other space and time.” Courtesy of Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen & Luke Walden, “The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts”
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This photo from 1939 was one of scores made by Arthur Rothstein used to promote the “disease model” practiced by doctors at Lexington. Drug use was seen as an illness not a inherently criminal behaviour.
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‘Narcotic Farm at Lexington, Kentucky, 1939. Credit: Arthur Rothstein
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Hypodermic syringes confiscated during admissions in 1939. Note one disguised as a fountain pen. Credit: Arthur Rothstein, National Library of Medicine.
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The Darrow Photopolygraph measured a patient’s mental and physical reaction to slang references to drugs. In this 1939 photo, a researcher shows the addict words such as “dope” and “informer”, while monitoring the patient’s reaction. The patient is an actor posing for promotional material created by the government to publicize the Narcotic Farm. Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Kentucky Historical Society.

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Later today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the nominations for the 2017 Oscars. Ava DuVernay’s doc 13th is on the longlist and tipped to make the shortlist for Best Documentary*. 13th has, deservedly, got a lot of praise since its release in October, but there’s another documentary about the Prison Industrial Complex that came out in 2016 that I’d like to champion here.

The Prison In Twelve Landscapes, directed by Brett Story, is a film that, in many ways, retools the documentary format. It is a film about prison without ever going inside one (although the film closes with a monumental, slow-motion approach to the car-park of the citadel-like Attica Prison). It’s not up for a gong, which is a shame because everyone can benefit from its radical politics and creative verve.

 

Forcefully, The Prison In Twelve Landscapes rejects the common format of prison documentaries. You know, meet a character; set the broader context of incarceration; chart the character’s life; establish a moment in which fortunes changed for the worst; define the injustice; imagine a different future for the main character and possibly thousands or millions of others locked up for whom she/he serves as representative.

“I’ve watched a lot of prison films, documentaries and non-doc’s, and they kind of all take the same shape,” Story told Guernica recently. “You go inside a prison, you point the camera at a black man in a cell and the narrative, especially if it is a progressive or liberal film, will expose what’s going on. You expose the violence, you expose the injustice of this person’s incarceration, or you tell a redemption story, or transformation or an innocence story. It seemed to me that these narratives have their place, but there are limitations to them.”

In her deliberate refusal of orthodoxy, Story comes up with a structure that leaps across geographies, communities and themes: an unnamed female prisoner talks about fighting fire in Marin County with the California Department of Corrections (she is proud of the work but knows she won’t be a fire-fighter after release because of her conviction); a resident of a post-coal Kentucky town thankful for “recession proof” prison jobs; poor Missouri residents kept down by over-policing and rampant ticketing; an overly eager spokesperson for Quicken Loans who has drunk the corporate-Koolaid and extols the virtues of wholesale regeneration, rising rents and private security firms in downtown Detroit; an entrepreneur who negotiates the byzantine NYDOC mailroom rules so prisoners’ loved ones don’t have to.

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The twelve vignettes are tied together by a looming music score and studies of smoke, steam and clouds. We’re all under the same sky, we all breathe the same air. Huge credit to Director of Photography Maya Bankovic and Editor Avrïl Jacobson too.

This film manifests the visuals for abolition activism. Prisons are all around us. They emerge from capitalist logic and conform to economic and geographic structures that are both produced by, and the producer of, racism, classicism, social immobility and chauvinism. Prisons are not about solving crime; they are a punishment of people outside white hetero-normativity. Prisons brutalise marginalized communities by further excluding them from opportunity and thereby delegitimizing them; prisons allow for existent power to confirm its prejudices and further its abuses.

 

Again from Story’s interview with Guernica (which I can’t recommend highly enough) she explains how a narrative knitted through seemingly disparate, seemingly ordinary places reflects the pervasiveness of the problem and also the near invisibility of its (most obvious) infrastructure, the prison building itself.

“I was very cognizant of how difficult it is at this moment to get inside prisons. There are more prisons than ever before, but they are further away and more locked down than ever before. So, I was really interested in the psychic distance created by that geographic distance, and the way in which prisons are spaces of disappearance but also spaces of massive infrastructures, as buildings that hold lots of people, but they’re also disappeared in the landscape.”

Furthermore, on the limits of criminal justice reform conversations, and how those conversations cannot be separate from critiques of economic inequality and labour rights, Story says:

“So long as we are confined to thinking about [prison reform talk] just as a problem of imprisoning the wrong people or punishing people too much, then we don’t actually get at the fundamental relationships that have created the prison build up in the first place. In terms of people on the right and the neoliberal democrats as well, who are all about championing prison reform like the Koch brothers, well they are the biggest union busters in this country.”

“We can’t think about prisons and the problem of mass incarceration outside of the problem of labor. There’s a direct correlation between the stagnation of workers, wages, structural unemployment, especially for African Americans, and union busting. This sort of neoliberalism from the 1970’s onwards maps intimately alongside the rise of the carceral state. In some ways, I want to say who cares if the Koch brothers want to say we’ve locked up too many people and we want to put some money into prison reform. But, let’s not get too excited about that because at the same time they are still undermining worker power and undermining good jobs and good wages at every turn. There’s too close of a relationship between workers and the problem of unemployment, the problem of poverty and mass incarceration in this country.”

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The Prison In Twelve Landscapes has already won a raft of accolades including a nomination for Best Feature Length Documentary at the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. Paste had it as one of their best documentaries of 2016. In a glowing review, The New York Times said soberly, “What we see is no less than the draining of hope from one group of citizens to benefit another.” Cinema Politica had it as one of their best political documentaries of the year. It is a film that is impeccably crafted and one that credits its audience with intelligence. It treats the complex issue of mass incarceration in a complex way.

Some of the most infuriating scenes are those from Ferguson, Missouri. Story went there one year after police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. Story met citizens like Sherie (above) who faced either a $175 fine or jail. What for? For not securing a trash-can lid. Derrick (below) talks of continual harassment, arrest and fines.

“These communities are over-policed,” explains Story, “because the revenue model is generated based primarily on police fining people of color, mostly poor people for incidental violations like traffic violations. So there is already an existing infrastructure that floods these communities with police, and this is part of the story that gave rise to this murder.”

 

DuVernay’s 13th, and Story’s The Prison In Twelve Landscapes are two quite different films, yet they complement one another and support the arguments of the other. (I wonder what the effect of 12 Landscapes would’ve been had it had the worldwide Netflix distribution that 13th enjoyed?)

13th walks the viewer through a literal historical narrative by means of stats, facts and talking heads. DuVernay illuminates the racist underpinnings to criminal justice and execution of law, drawing the line from slavery, to abolition, to the 13th Amendment, to convict leasing, to Jim Crow, to modern day prisons. DuVernay wants to confront us with the blatant injustice of it all; Story wants to shock us with our complicity in it all.

The two films can be understood as the feedback of one other. DuVernay shows us the injustices of the past, but Story shows us how difficult they are to untangle from the present. We’re caught in a destructive loop. Without a significant reordering of society we are destined to continue the abuse and wastage inherent to mass imprisonment.

The Prison In Twelve Landscapes is a landmark achievement in documentary making. “It’s rare that a film this outraged is also this calm,” said Village Voice. It is a film that is true and true to its form. It is creepy, troubling and near; it is a prism on our society that should deeply unsettle us. It is the best film of 2016 not to win an Oscar.

This is great –> Story’s Five Book Plan: Carceral Geography.

Peep my 2013 article The 20 Best American Prison Documentaries.

Story’s Guernica interview on the whys, whats and hows of her work.

Follow The Prison In Twelve Landscapes on Facebook and Twitter.

Follow Brett Story on Vimeo and Twitter.

* If 13th is shortlisted, I hope it wins as that could only benefit the ongoing awareness about the racist, classist and abusive functioning of prisons and sentencing. Honestly though, I don’t think 13th will win. It uses a formula template of chronological narrative. 13th is a very important film but it doesn’t experiment enough with the documentary form itself. I think Cameraperson will win.

** Update: 14:00 GMT. Cameraperson wasn’t shortlisted, so my prediction withers. Fire At Sea (Gianfranco Rosi and Donatella Palermo); I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, Rémi Grellety and Hébert Peck); Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams and Julie Goldman); O.J.: Made In America (Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow); and 13th (Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick and Howard Barish) were shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature.

texas

Still from video of a TDCJ officer firing a tear gas canister at a group of prisoners from just several metres. Source: ABC

If you’re in any doubt about either the power of images or the vindictiveness of prison authorities then consider this story.

Elderick Brass, a former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) officer leaked a video in May 2015 that showed a Lychner State Jail guard firing a tear gas canister into the chest of a prisoner. The video appeared in an ABC report in August 2015.

Indicted by a grand jury in December, Brass is due to appear in court February for “misuse of official information.” The law states he could face between 2 and 10 years if found guilty.

WHY THE PUBLIC EXPOSURE?

TDCJ has already admitted the improper use of the tear gas gun, but it has not sanctioned the trigger happy guard, let alone terminate his employment. Not wanting to cause itself problems, I presume, the TDCJ is hoping the matter will be forgotten and the retraining of staff it says it has done since will prevent a repeat event. Usually, the authorities want stuff like this to go away as quietly and as quickly as possible; for it to get out and off the news. One wonders then what the prosecution of Brass does? It certainly brings the video back to public attention.

Assuming that the TDCJ are willing to tolerate the scrutiny afresh, one must conclude that they really want a prosecution for the purposes of intimidating whistle-blowers and putting staff back under the order of command. They’re bringing the boot down especially to quash internal leaks of misconduct and injustice. They’re accommodating the continued circulation of this video in order to preclude the future circulation of others.

Worth noting is that the video on ABC includes only the incident and the moments leading immediately up to it. There is a longer video depicting the before and after and giving more context to the altercation between prisoners that gave rise to this nervy cop’s point-blank violence. Get the full context of the video and the TDCJ response in the ABC August 2015 report.

NEW VISUAL PARADIGM

Between whistle-blowers, FOIA requests, court materials, leaked CCTV and contraband cellphone vids there is a wealth of visual material emerging from the Prison Industrial Complex that describes the system very differently to the descriptions of professional photographers.

Whether the video and images are amateur, operational or prisoner-made they tend to share a grain and a noise. Characterised by awkward angles, low resolution, ambient cacophony and muted tones, prisoners’ illegal vids resemble surveillance footage. Prisons and jails give rise to horrific conditions and in some ways all the images and videos in what I’m referring to as a new visual paradigm are horrifying too. Often, if a video comes to our attention it is due to the violence or injustice it includes.

Even within images and videos in which abuse is not explicit, our eyes are being trained on the aesthetics and, crucially, the psychological and existential threat of incarceration. I’m thinking this through as I write.

I’ve not put into words fully, yet, what the emergence of this distinctly new type of visual evidence means. I expect it’ll function in the courts and for journalism as it always has; to construct, confirm and dispute narrative. And so, I guess, I am more interested in what it means for us as citizens.

Are we aware that more and more of the visual representations of US prisons and jails are shifting toward raw, unpolished feeds captured by wall-mounted cameras, body cams and illicit phone-cameras?

As we are exposed to this new type of imagery do we process it with the narrative its given to us through news and Internet alongside ads and comment boards? Do we take empathetic leaps to imagine all experiences within the scenes of abuse played out on our screens? Do we appreciate that events in one prison, at any moment, may be repeating in hundreds of the other 6,000+ locked facilities in the U.S.?

Visuals are one of the key ways outside-citizens learn about prisons. They are a key tool with which authorities–and increasingly prisoners–tweak their narratives for public consumption. Being a engaged citizen means to approach this new paradigm armed with information, skepticism and visual literacy.

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Over a period of six months, between the summer of 2014 and the winter of 2015, Amber Sowards shot 20 rolls of film in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center in Madison, Wisconsin. The series of portraits she made is called Captured.

“The series hopes to expose the general community to what life is like for incarcerated youth in Dane County,” writes Sowards. “While at the same time creating a visual narrative that documents and puts a face to what racial disparity looks like in present day Dane County.”

The population changed over the months. Many young people left the facility during the project’s run. Others arrived. Some weeks, Sowards saw three teens. Other weeks she worked with 25.

Sowards’ directions to the youth were minimal.

“I asked if I could photograph the youth and then I picked the location of the shot,” she says. “Then we just had a conversation and photographed naturally. Most of the teens really liked having their photo taken; it made them feel valued.”

The conversations were so striking that it soon became evident that teens’ voices were central to portraying their life as those “in an unnatural environment”. The voices in aggregate challenge the audience to imagine alternatives to incarceration, something more natural.

They were collaged into a 5-minute track which you can listen to here.

“We did not intend to pair the photographs with audio [at first],” says Sowards. “That decision came later.”

As with most other portrait series of incarcerated youth, anonymity is a prerequisite. The genre of portraiture becomes a hell of a lot harder when you don’t have facial expression and eye contact to work with. The thing that strikes me about Sowards’ work (and it might just be the softer edge of analogue photography) is that the children seem to adhere to the palette of the place. The images are diffuse with the blues, beiges, grey and white light of the facility. The chess board and the green ball are sharp punctuations of color.

There’s an noticeable degree of civility in the environment too. While the interiors and hardware are unmistakably institutional there’s clearly an array of activities at the teens disposal. The viewer is left in no doubt that these prisoners are children and therefore, I hope, viewers carry with that an expectation and optimism that this is a space that will help the teens in the long term. If this seems a modest hope then consider that in many photographs of (adult) prisons a complete lack of care, protection and nurturing is most evident, and is the norm.

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Sowards says some staff at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center were fine with her presence and that of her camera. Other staff members were uncomfortable. This too suggests that the juvie depicted here might be for some therapeutic. In facilities where cameras are not welcome, where they are a considered a threat, one assumes that not all is right. Fortunately, for these teens, not the case here. Captured is a pleasant, modest look inside a previously unknown microcosm of Madison, Wisconsin.

 

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Captured was sponsored by GSAFE and delivered through its New Narrative Project. GSAFE increases the capacity of LGBTQ+ students, educators, and families to create schools in Wisconsin where all youth thrive. The New Narrative Project aims to foster self-determination through custom-designed workshops that help incarcerated youth access their potential and think analytically about the social justice issues they are impacted by.

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Photographer Nick Vedros made some images in Lansing Correctional Facility (formerly the Kansas State Penitentiary) for Reaching Out From Within, a charity that supports rehabilitation programs for prisoners “who want to make lasting changes in their behavior so they can become a role model for non-violence, while still in a penitentiary, and also be contributing members of society when they return to society.”

The images are patently promotional and that’s okay. All quite benign. I’m sure this is a program that helps prisoners a great deal. Any committed efforts usually do. Some interiors, some portraits, some observed studies. Above is the photo that stood out for me.

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This is a story about how one photographer went from documentarian to facilitator of a camera workshop inside a women’s jail.

The FAIR (Future Achievers In Reentry) program, run by Welcome Home Ministries, at Las Colinas Detention and Rehabilitation Center helps women prepare for a successful return to society. A few years ago, Sheriff Gore of San Diego County was keen to promote the program. It does appear to be a shining light in a department that has had significant troubles.

Sheriff Gore approached photographer Michele Zousmer, who he knew from past involvement with a local foster care agency, and asked if Zousmer could, through her images, help “change the perception of the female convict.”

“I jumped at the opportunity not knowing how life-changing it would be for me,” says Zousmer. “I was confined to the small room in which the women lived. I started by photographing the women while they were in group with their facilitator.”

Zousmer has collected her own images in a series titled Making the Invisible Visible (more here). She has made slideshows of her photographs for Welcome Home Ministries and conferences on the FAIR program. Here, in this article, only images made by the women prisoners are featured. They can also be seen on Zousmer’s website in the blogpost Photography as Healing Art.

The images were made in the old Las Colinas Detention and Rehabilitation Center. It closed in August 2014. It held over 1000 women. The few dozen women in the FAIR program were selected by the administration through an application process. If selected, they lived in a separate dorm.

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At first, Zousmer visited with her own camera to document the group and their progress. She wanted to show the softer side of the women.

“I wanted to capture the victimization, sadness, remorse, and despair, but also the beauty and transition they showed in group. I wanted others to look at these women and see them as ‘us’! Media portrays people in prison as people unlike ‘us’. I quickly learned these women were very much like ‘us’. My heart opened.”

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Gripped by the FAIR environment of positive change, Zousmer soon upped her level of involvement. She coordinated, with a friend, a Women’s Empowerment group once a week.

“When people feel better about themselves,” explains Zousmer, “they take better care of themselves, and do not allow bad things to happen to them. They begin to have hope and want things for themselves and their children. The women started to feel better about themselves. They recognized how to deal with their triggers. They opened themselves up and released their shame and bonded with others. They learned to trust again!”

Soon thereafter, Zousmer wondered if cameras in the hands of the female prisoners had therapeutic potential.

“I broached the idea with the women about learning basic photography and taking photos of themselves and their experience in the FAIR dorm,” she explains. “They jumped at this.”

Zousmer put a call out to friends on Facebook for donations of old point-and-shoot cameras. She got 15. After a basic camera lesson, the women made images.

“I impressed on them I wanted them to express themselves and their experience.”

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The women were as comfortable behind the camera as they were in front, reports Zousmer.

“Photos were limited to inside the FAIR dorm and in the front yard. The one thing off limits for them, and for me, was taking photos of their food! Interesting?” says Zousmer. “They only had access to cameras for the two hours I was there.”

Back at home, Zousmer would upload the images and make an edit of the most useful images. She’d send files to a local store to make prints. Zousmer has always approached photography – hers or others – as a means to advocate. In this case, she believed these photos could help these women tell their stories. Unfortunately, these weren’t images the women could fully own.

“They were not allowed to keep any of their photos,” explains Zousmer ruefully. “I would have liked to have put them up in the dorm. The women were proud of what they had done but authorities said no. The women did own photos from their families, but our images were not allowed. I thought it was punitive and another means of control.”

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The photo therapy class led by Zousmer had only a short life. In November 2014, there was a security breach (unrelated to the FAIR program) at the new Las Colinas facility and she was never let back in again.

“I tried to go back as a guest to visit some of the women I couldn’t say goodbye to and was treated like a criminal. I was not allowed in main area but had to visit behind glass,” she says. “I kept writing to my ladies and most are out now. I still maintain relationships with some of them through Facebook.”

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Despite being short-lived, the program left its mark.

“Getting close to these women in this way allowed me to feel their pain and realize they all are victims of abuse on some level. Most of these women do not need to be locked up. To me, being in a good treatment program and not separating them from their children would have greater impact.

“Removing people from bad environments and allowing them time to see and feel the difference, surrounded by people who are compassionate and caring, has a bigger influence on them then being locked up.”

Now, Zousmer runs a Women’s Empowerment group at a long term offenders pilot program for the WestCare group. She has a proposal in the pipeline to introduce cameras there too.

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Imprisonment frequently dehumanizes people and can cause anger and depression, says Zousmer. Punishment has a place for people who have transgressed and abused but we, in freer society, forget all too often that the majority of women in prison have suffered abuse also. In many cases, horrendous degrees of abuse. They need healing, not warehousing.

“Incarceration won’t change,” asserts Zousmer, “until the many administrators and legislators change their mindset and realize the long term [negative] effects prison and jail causes to these women’s psyches.”

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