KAREN, 69, in a homeless shelter four weeks after her release. East Village, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 35 years
Released: April 2017
“When I made parole plans, I thought I was going to have a good re-entry situation in the house I paroled to. I realized almost immediately that it wouldn’t work out, so I left, without anywhere else to go. Parole sent me to a homeless assessment shelter in the south Bronx. The quality of the bedding and the food was a lateral move from prison. But factoring in my freedom, there’s no question that it was an improvement. Now, I’m in a shelter run by the Women’s Prison Association. I feel safe and secure. The room is spare, with not much in it, but it’s mine. In this room, I find comfort, privacy, safety, and peace of mind.”


Working as a public defender, Sara Bennett has met a great many women who have faced struggle and hardship. Many serve, or have served, long sentences. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women has increased by 800% in the U.S. There are nearly 100,000 women in state prisons and federal penitentiaries. A further 110,000 are in county jails, 80% of whom report having been the victim of sexual assault during their life time. Women who have been convicted of serious crimes have, more often than not, been the victims of serious abuse themselves. Irrespective of crime, I have consistently argued that mass incarceration does little to improve or heal. It does the opposite. It damages.

When facing conservative opposition, prison reformers often resort to arguments against the incarceration of non-violent people, women included. Reformers attempt to find sympathetic groups within the prison system for whom the public may be persuaded to support. This is all well and good, but it comes at a price; people convicted of violent crimes are left to rot, so to speak. For advocates such as Bennett, it is clear that long sentences achieve little and that the abuses of the prison industrial complex are wrought on all who it swallows. The Bedroom Project humanizes women who have recently re-entered society after serving long, multi-decade Life With Parole sentences.

Bennett has created a space for each of these women to reflect upon their post-release situation. They regale personal tales and they are photographed in their most personal spaces–their bedrooms. In some cases, a bedroom might be the only place some of these women can claim as their own.

Bennett is a former criminal defense attorney who most frequently represented battered women and the wrongly convicted. She uses photography to amplify her observations of the criminal justice system. Her first project, Life After Life in Prison documented the lives of four women as they returned to society after spending decades in prison. Bennett decries the “pointlessness of extremely long sentences and arbitrary parole denials”. The Bedroom Project is currently on show at the CUNY School of Law in Long Island City, New York until March 28th.

Keen to know more about Bennett’s process and motivations, I approached her with a few questions about The Bedroom Project. Scroll down for our Q&A in which we discuss the meaning of the work for both subjects and audiences.


EVELYN, 42, in an apartment she shares with a roommate five years after her release. Queens, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: 20 years
Released: April 2012
“Look where I am now. Five years ago, I came out from a little cell, started out in a halfway house, moved to an apartment, back to a transitional home, and now I’m in my own room in an apartment I share with a roommate. What can be better than this? This is happening.”


Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Many of the women you photographed are living in a room in a community house, or an apartment building for returning citizens, or in a one bedroom apartment. So, they have a single room that is their own. While imprisoned, they may or may not have had a cellmate, and the degree to which they could personalise their cell would differ. No matter, they lived within walls for long periods. You’re photographing them also within walls. Tell us about why you focused on their bedrooms.

Sara Bennett (SB): It’s not the similarity to the prison cell that I’m trying to highlight, but the contrast. It’s true that most of the women now live in shared spaces, but still there’s a sense of intimacy, self, and pride. They all have items on display that would have been contraband in prison, including stuffed animals, wooden picture frames, patterned sheets, cellphones and computers. For decades, their cells were randomly inspected, they were locked in every evening, and they were forced to move at a moment’s notice. Now these bedrooms are their own.


TOWANDA, 45, in her own apartment five years after her release, with her daughter, Equanni. Bronx, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: almost 23 years
Released: October 2012
“I was in the shelter system for the first four years. It was about the same as prison. You’re confined, you can’t do anything, you don’t have your own thoughts, you’re always stressed out. It’s good to have my own apartment and pay my own bills. It’s peaceful and I feel safe.”


PP: What was the dynamic between you and the women.

SB: For many years, I was the pro bono clemency attorney for Judith Clark, who was serving a 75-year-to-life sentence for her role as a getaway driver in a famous New York Case—the Brinks robbery of 1981. All my subjects know her and my first photography project, Spirit on the Inside, is about the women who were incarcerated with her and her influence on their lives. (Spirit on the Inside book.)

The reaction to Spirit on the Inside—viewers were surprised that the formerly incarcerated women were just regular women—sparked my second project, Life After Life in Prison. I followed four women in various stages of re-entry, and I spent so much time with each of them that we really got to know each other. At the same time, I began work on The Bedroom Project, and the four women put me in touch with other potential subjects. So before I even walked in the door, my new portrait subjects were open to me. They’d seen my previous work; they knew some of my former subjects or clients; and they’d been told that I could be trusted.

I’ve ended up being a mentor or friend to almost all the women I’ve photographed.

PP: Why did you choose to include the women’s handwriting?

SB: My goal in all of my photography work is to show the humanity in people who are, or were, incarcerated. I believe that if judges, prosecutors and legislators could see lifers as real individuals, they would rethink the policies that lock them away forever. I want viewers to know what these women are thinking. Including their handwriting emphasizes that these are their words, these are their thoughts.

I asked all of them the same question: “When you see this photo I took of you, what does it make you think?” Their answers are varied and lead the viewer to all kinds of issues—from what it feels like to live in a cell, to educational and employment opportunities inside and outside prison, the difficulties in getting parole and being on parole, finding housing, and issues of remorse, regret, and forgiveness.


TRACY, 51, in her own apartment three-and-a-half years after her release. Jamaica, NY (2017)
Sentence: 22 years to life
Served: 24 years
Released: February 2014
“I imagined coming home, living in a one- or two-bedroom apartment, where one was a master and an extra room for guests. Here I have that. I call this room my “doll house,” my safe haven. I feel at peace. I’ve finally unpacked. I spend a lot of time in here. I take pride in everything. I put more into this room than into the kitchen. I know I need to eat, but my room is my nutrition.”

MIRIAM, 51, in transitional housing two months after her release. Corona, NY (2018)
Sentence: 20 years to life
Served: 30 years
Released: December 2017
“This room is my room. A place of my sanity unlike the one in prison. No one will bother me if I’m heard talking to myself. I can think clearly, I can breathe, I can live my way, dress my way, look at things my may. Move my furniture around my way. I love my room. It’s mine—all mine and no one can say anything about it.”


PP: What were the main victories for these women post release? What were their main challenges?

SB: Each woman’s circumstance is unique and so their challenges and victories are different. I’d say the biggest and most immediate challenge is finding housing. There are some re-entry programs that provide housing that is either temporary (up to six months) or semi-permanent, and many of the women were lucky enough to get into one of those programs. Some of the women ended up in homeless shelters and some have bounced around from place to place. I know two women who went home to live with family but both ended up moving to housing programs, in part because those programs offer a community that feels familiar and supportive.

Some of the women have completed educational degrees since coming home, some have found rewarding jobs and relationships, and unsurprisingly, the longer a woman has been home, the more stable she becomes.

But most have difficulty finding a job, let alone a decent job, and almost all of them have financial struggles. Many get benefits but that amount is paltry.

It’s mind boggling how quickly the women seem to adapt, how resilient they are, and how they take challenges in stride. Remember, my subjects spent anywhere from 15 to 35 years in prison. The outside world changed radically in that time. As Aisha, one of my subjects says, “It’s like putting a kindergartner in college”.


AISHA, 45, in a house she shares with 5 other women 14 months after her release. Flushing, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 25 years
Released: June 2016
“When I was released, I didn’t feel overwhelmed; I felt as though I was right where I was supposed to be. Later though, the feeling of being overwhelmed came as I found myself on the business side of life: food shopping, rent, bills, metrocards, etc. That was all new to me because I lived at home with my mom until I was arrested. My children were one and three years old when I left them and I felt as if they were one and three the whole time I was away. I feel that way about myself now. I was arrested when I was 19 and being in this big, unfamiliar, advanced world makes me feel like a 19-year-old trapped in a 45 year old body. I am both happy and grateful to be out here, but it’s like putting a kindergartener in college.”

VALERIE, 62 in an apartment she shares with a roommate. Bronx, NY (2018).
Sentence: 19 years to life.
Served: 17 years (granted clemency by Governor Andrew Cuomo).
Released: January 2017
“I got my freedom. That’s true! But it’s not the same as being free free. I like to travel. I used to go to VA, to PA, and the casinos and the boardwalk in Atlantic City. I love the beach. But I can’t go anywhere without my PO’s permission. If I want to go to a play or a concert, I need my PO’s permission. Until I get off parole, my life is messed up. I can’t do what I want.”


PP: Release from prison is not easy thing. Many of the women were given “numbers-to-life” sentences. Some got out on their parole date, others years after their first parole eligibility. What has been the situation in NY state for releasing persons who’ve served long sentences? Has parole and release become more common recently?

SB: When I first became an attorney in 1986, there was a presumption of parole. If, for example, a person had a sentence of 15 years to life, then she’d likely be released after serving her 15 years, provided that she hadn’t been in serious trouble in the few years prior. But when Governor Pataki took office in 1995, that presumption changed. And no matter how people spent their time in prison—working in trades, earning college degrees, setting up programs, having excellent disciplinary records, living in honor housing—they were repeatedly denied parole based on the one factor that will never change: the nature of the crime they committed.

I like to think that the parole system in New York State is starting to change. In the last six months, the number of parole grants has steadily increased, in part because Governor Andrew Cuomo has had the opportunity to appoint new parole commissioners and in part because of a culture shift that recognizes that, we, as a society, lock people up for far too long. Still, we have a long way to go.


CAROL, 69, in a communal residence four years after her release. Long Island City, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 35 years
Released: March 2013
“When I was inside, I dreamed of getting out, getting a job, travelling a little bit. But by the time I got out, my health was bad. Basically, that changed all plans. I wish I could do more, but I’m at peace. I have my grandson, Cecil. He’s precious.”


PP:  What have been the audiences’ responses to the work?

SB: The photos are currently facing out onto a busy street in Queens, NY and I’ve eavesdropped as passersby have studied the portraits and talked to each other. I’ve never heard anyone say, “you do the crime, you do the time.” Rather, passersby seem sympathetic, drawn in, and incredulous at the amount of time that the women have spent in prison. I’ve also moderated more than a dozen panel conversations with my subjects, and the audiences have been very responsive to the women. No matter what the women’s pasts might have been, today they are hard-working, loving, resilient, optimistic people, and the audience seems to understand that they have earned second chances.

PP: Do prisons work?

SB: That’s such a loaded question that I’m not sure how to answer it. Suffice it to say that in this country we incarcerate way too many people for way too long under conditions that are dehumanizing and obscene. In other countries, imprisonment itself is the punishment, but the conditions themselves are not punitive and abysmal.

PP: In extension of your photos and the women’s own testimonies, what would you like to impress upon members of the public about improvements in the criminal justice system?

SB: For a long time, most of the conversation around changing the criminal justice system has focused on non-violent felony offenders. President Obama talked a lot about non-violent felony offenders and low-level drug offenders. I’m concerned about people with really lengthy, or life sentences, those who are either repeatedly denied parole or don’t even have that possibility. That’s why my only criteria for The Bedroom Project was that the subjects had a life sentence. (A life sentence doesn’t really mean life in prison unless it’s life without parole. A sentence of say, 25 years to life, means that after 25 years a person becomes eligible for parole.) I wanted to really drive home the point: people with life sentences are ordinary (in the best sense of the word) human beings. They deserve second chances.


MARY, 51, with her niece, Trish, in her own apartment 19 years after her release. Brooklyn, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: 15 years
Released: May 1998
“I’ve been home 19 years, but re-entry is a lifetime process. In many ways prison is with you forever. Still, the impact is a lot less than it used to be. For years, everything I did, everything I thought about, reflected back to prison. It was about 15 years out—I did 15 years in—that I stopped connecting to that girl I was in prison. Maybe you have to do the same amount of time outside as you did inside until you feel FREE from it.

”LINDA, 70, in her own apartment 14 years after her release. Albany, NY (2017)
Sentence: 17 years to life
Served: 14 years. Granted clemency by Governor George Pataki
Released: February 2003
“I love my apartment. The building is clean. I feel safe and at peace. I been here 10 years. I been out of prison 14 years. It’s so hard when you get out. I just stayed strong. With a friend’s help I got a job as a housekeeper in a hospital. I stayed there for 9-1/2 years. Then I retired. As of now I have to try very hard to stay on my budget finance wise. I have a good family & friends in my life. I thank the life I have now. And I thank God everyday that I am alive and safe. Thank you God.”


PP: What effects (positive and/or negative) do prisons and reentry have on women? What are their needs that often get overlooked?

SB: One of the saddest things to me about prison is that it can be the first time a woman has found safety in her life. Most women in prison have been victims of gender-based violence. I’ll never forget a client telling me that she got her first good night’s sleep when she went to prison, no longer subject to abuse by her boyfriend. So, in that sense, prison initially brought some peace as well as a sense of community and self awareness to some of the women I know. Of course, that came at the extremely high cost of the loss of freedom.

In general, women have fewer outside contacts than men and lose touch with their families much quicker than men do. So they are very isolated from the outside world and come home to a world that has moved on without them. They find a society that puts up a series of hurdles: they are required to attend state-mandated programs, barred from inexpensive public housing and banned from voting. In addition, they face travel limitations and curfews that make visiting family and working more difficult. When they eventually become eligible to be released from parole, they are often denied without explanation.

I hope the stories of these women remind us of the countless people still in prison who, like them, deserve that same chance to build a life on the outside.

PP: Thanks, Sara.

SB: Thank you.






How can images tell the story of mass incarceration when the imprisoned don’t have control over their own representation? This is the question Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood asks as editor of the latest Aperture (Spring 2018).

Prison Nation” can be ordered online today and hits the news-stands next week. Devoted to prison imagery and discussion of mass incarceration, the issue presents a slew of works across contrasting genres — landmark documentary by Bruce JacksonJoseph Rodriguez and Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick; luscious and uncanny portraits by Jack Lueders-Booth, Deborah Luster and Jamel Shabazz; insider images from Nigel PoorLorenzo Steele, Jr. and Jesse Krimes; and contemporary works by Sable Elyse Smith, Emily Kinni, Zora Murff, Lucas Foglia and Stephen Tourlentes.

Equally exciting is the banger roster of thinkers contributing essays, intros and conversations — including Mabel O. Wilson, Shawn Michelle Smith, Christie Thompson, Jordan Kisner, Zachary Lazar, Rebecca Bengal, Brian WallisJessica Lynne, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ruby Tapia, Zarinah Shabazz, Brian Stevenson, Sarah LewisHank Willis Thomas and Virginia Grise.

I have an essay ‘Prison Index’ included which looks back on almost a decade of this Prison Photography website–how it began, what it has done and what it has become. I highlight a dozen-or-so photographers’ works that are not represented by features in the issue itself. I wonder how PP functions as an archive and what role it serves for public memory and knowledge.


I’ve known for years that Prison Photography requires a design overhaul. This past week, I’ve moved forward with plans for that. It goes without saying that the almost-daily blogging routine of 2008 with which Prison Photography began has morphed into a slower publishing schedule. There’s a plethora of great material on this website but a lot of it is buried in the blog-scroll format. My intention is to redesign PP as more of an “occasionally-updated archive” whereby the insightful interviews from years past are drawn up to the surface.

It’s time to make this *database* of research more legible and searchable. Clearly, as this Aperture issue demonstrates, the niche genre of prison photographs is vast and it demands a more user-friendly interface for this website. I’m proud to be included in “Prison Nation” but know it’s a timely prod to develop Prison Photography’s design and serve the still-crucial discussions.



Get your copy of Aperture, Issue 230 “Prison Nation” here.

Thanks to the staff at Aperture, especially Brendan Wattenberg and Michael Famighetti for ushering and editing the piece through.

Answer by Torsten Schumann, from Germany


How do you describe your culture, your nation? Would you describe it differently to someone overseas? Would you describe it differently to someone in prison overseas? What if that prisoner overseas asked you not to use words but to use images in your response? These are not hypothetical questions, at least not for the men at Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) in Portland, Oregon. Nor for their collaborators scattered across the globe who are involved with Answers Without Words.

Answers Without Words is a collaborative photography project by artists Anke Schüttler, Roshani Thakore and the Free Mind Collective (a group of currently and formerly incarcerated artists) based at CRCI that engages photographers and prisoners in a visual exchange.

Men in the Free Mind Collective have devised questionnaires for photographers in specific countries (see examples below). Participating photographers are requested to answered with images instead of text: Answers without words.


Questions for the former Yugoslavia and Switzerland.

Answer by Torsten Schumann, from Germany


You are invited to join in! Answers Without Words is currently looking for artists and photographers in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Poland, Israel and North Korea particularly, but are interested in collaborators anywhere in the world. (See details below.)

Answers Without Words functions, in some ways, as a protracted, connected non-digital version of Google searching.

“The internet is a research tool we usually take for granted in our daily lives,” explain Schüttler and Thakore. “That access is lost in incarceration; prisoners are restricted in terms of what they can learn online. On the other side, not many people on the outside have access to direct information or a good understanding about what happens behind prison walls. Answers Without Words seeks to re-establish an analogue and personalized version of internet image research.”

“Answers Without Words creates a personal experience directly tailored for me, that enables my mind to take a trip abroad,” explains Tom Price, a participant in CRCI.


Questions by Tom Price.

The Answers Without Words team assesses collaborators “answers”, CRCI, Portland Oregon


The questions and photographs will culminate in two exhibitions, one inside the prison and one publicly accessible in Portland, Oregon in Fall 2018. A public lecture will be presented in conjunction with the exhibition as well as a publication about the project that will be available publicly.

“In collaboration with overseas artists, this project supports marginalized artists, consisting of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, building ties between them, their communities, the world and art,” says J Zimmerli, a prisoner at CRCI.

In return for your images, you can then ask questions of your own about the men’s lives inside. A photography workshop in prison will create a counter round of answers without words from the prison back into the world.

“People always want to know what it is like in prison, we can share this information with them,” asserts Musonda Mwango, a participant from CRCI.


The Answers Without Words team workshopping image “answers” of their own, CRCI, Portland Oregon


“We want to create awareness for the issue of mass incarceration all the while focusing on one person at a time to make people feel human again. With our exchange we challenge our expectations of a foreign country and our expectations of prison and create artistic opportunity for both artists at CRCI and the photographers abroad,” say Schüttler and Thakore.




If you’d like to collaborate, email answerswithoutwords@gmail.com with the following information:

– your name.

– the country you are currently located at and from which you’d participate.

– examples of your photographic work (a website URL or 5-10 images).

The prisoners in the Free Mind Collective will send 5 to 10 questions.

Time is ticking though! You have 4 weeks. All materials must be sent to Answers Without Words by March 31st.




Answers Without Words is a project done in conjunction with the Portland State University MFA in Art + Social Practice and funded by the Precipice Fund, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the Calligram Foundation.





wrote about the emergence of the Black Power movement in the UK, for Timeline. Specifically, about a small set of images of one protest and associated ephemera:

At the start of the 1970s, the Black Panther movement in the United States was both well established and well organized. It was also well feared by the authorities. By contrast, black activism in the U.K. was young, with barely a toehold on power. The trial of the Mangrove Nine, in 1970, changed all that.


According to the National Archives, photographs such as the ones you see here were “used by the police to suggest that key allies of the Black Power movement were implicated in planning and inciting a riot.”

Read more: When cops raided a hip 1970s London cafe, Britain’s Black Power movement rose up


(Untitled) © Petey, 2016. From the Humanize the Numbers Workshop.


In the Exposure Magazine interview It’s Time to Talk Social Justice, Isaac Wingfield lays out the strategies, challenges and successes of facilitating a joint prisoner/college student photography workshop in prison.

Through the support of the University of Michigan, Wingfield coordinates the Humanize the Numbers project, which began its work in late 2015 at the Thumb Correctional Facility and has since moved to another prison after a leadership change at Thumb.

Humanize the Numbers began from a conversation with the incarcerated men about what they wanted their photography to do. Suspecting that many representations of prisoners dehumanize, they wanted to change the script; they wanted to take the unfathomable and depressing statistics that dominate commentary about prisons, locate their position in relation, and then go beyond mere numbers. The men wanted to focus on the personal and the individual. They wanted to be accountable and to represent to themselves.

There’s a lot of common sense in the article. Wingfield covers everything from diligent planning, to acknowledging that the department of corrections is a key partner. From understanding that any in-prison program is vulnerable to abrupt changes of rules by prison administrators, to an honesty that Michigan students gain as much through the program than the men on the inside.

Critically, Wingfield and his collaborators discussed who their audience was. They decided to get the work into the hands of lawmakers in Michigan. Having that intention can direct and galvanize art making. Below, in italics, I’ve pulled what I believe to be the article‘s most important talking points and points of departure for further discussion.

“Skill building with cameras was popular among a group that was mostly preparing for reentry, but telling personal stories was more important among a group of lifers.”

“I wanted to avoid the traditional service-learning dynamic with students coming in to serve a needy population by providing something that well intentioned outsiders (professors or students) thinks the community needs. Power relationships are often neglected in these traditional service-learning courses…”

“This project is ultimately about humanizing people, acknowledging their individual stories and skills. If that doesn’t happen in the workshop itself, how will it ever happen when the resulting photographs make their way beyond the workshop?”

“It is helpful to recognize the lurking collaborator in the project: the MDOC is often silent participant but still an essential partner.”


In-process workshop, courtesy Humanize the Numbers.

(Untitled) © Jamal Biggs, 2016. “Me along with my brothers and cousins when we were younger. Half of them have since passed away at young ages. Of the others still living, only one of them has remained in contact with me since my incarceration. The pain and blessing of prisonseverely straining and often severing family relationships, but also giving me time to grow up and saving me from the same fate of dying young which has befallen my other family members.” From the Humanize the Numbers Workshop

In-process workshop, courtesy Humanize the Numbers.


“After discussion in one workshop about the intended audience for their photographs, we mailed photographs to two Michigan advocacy organizations, the MDOC Director and to every Law and Justice Committee member in the Michigan state House and every member of the Judiciary Committees in the Michigan state House and Senate. […] we never saw any responses from the policymakers who received images, [but] simply getting the images in front of them and sharing the perspective and the stories of the incarcerated men from the workshop made it a success.”

Despite only positive feedback “the new warden unexpectedly denied our request for a third workshop […] a few weeks before we were scheduled to start I was on the search for a new facility to host the workshop/course.”

“For those students (and there are many) who have never seriously considered the criminal justice system, getting to know the men inside the system is perhaps the most transformative part of the course.”


Read and see more: It’s Time to Talk Social Justice: Isaac Wingfield & the Humanize the Numbers Prison Photography Workshop

Visit the Humanize the Numbers website.


For the purposes of social media, I highlighted these same main talking points in a Twitter thread too.



Dutch photographer Jan Banning is fascinated by what communism looks like today. In 2013, he set out to document the obscured activities of small Communist Party chapters in Italy, India, Nepal, Portugal and Russia.

“I’m interested in countries in which communism isn’t a dominating ideology and places I could assume that members do it out of conviction and not because they think it’s good for their career,” says Banning of the series, Red Utopia. “Many of the local party members I met, who are still plodding along, certainly have a place in my heart now — either because of their own sad fate or because of how they devote themselves to social justice, often unpaid, and in many practical ways offer help to ordinary people.”

I wrote about the work for Timeline. Read and see more: Photos: A look at communists and their humble party offices around the globe



My end of year resolution was to avoid best of lists. My new years resolution is to write more letters on paper to actual people. Here’s 8-minutes of writing I made for the LensCulture 2017 Best Photobooks list.

I nominated three books, but only Jim Mortam’s was included in LC’s published rundown best of. By comparison, my selections look not very arty and quite concerned with real life.

Rob Stothard and Silvia Mollicchi




Impeccably researched, quietly shot, and brilliantly designed to mimic a UK Home Office report, Removal takes stock of the immigration real estate *portfolio* in Britain. Safely photographed from distance, Stothard’s unfrequented images remind us that we see virtually nothing of the insides of these sites. The extent to which private firms contract, own and operate these facilities is shocking.

Jim Mortram

Small Town Inertia


A long time coming (in the best way), Small Town Inertia proves that you needn’t chase the big smoke, the big names or the big bangs to make important work that speaks universally. From the town of Dereham and the surrounds, Mortram has made work that should remind us of our deep connection to, and responsibility for, our neighbours.

Jeffrey Stockbridge

Kensington Blues



A comprehensive, difficult and generous portrait of Philadelphians in some very challenged parts of the city. Stockbridge lived among his subjects and was a fixture on the blocks; that’s important to know because he has exposed some subjects while they’re engaged in risky behaviours. Subjects stand in the light, adopt body shapes and fix their stares right down the lens. Some scenes in Kensington Blues aren’t pretty but, then again, you’re not pretty. Most of the characters and their strength of character just take your breath away.




Artist-filmmaker Nirit Peled and director Sara Kolster have produced A Temporary Contact, a real time series of text messages and short videos delivered via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, that allows users to join family members as they journey from New York city to upstate prisons and back.

Over 30-hours, beginning at 10pm the evening after you sign up, you’ll receive at first few texts and then consistent volley of 22 short videos. The main protagonist is Amanda, a 20-year-old from Brooklyn who is visiting her brother, but other women speak to the camera and relay their experiences. Most videos are 45 seconds long and shot from the aisle of the bus. Gas station and restroom breaks are a relief for all. Audio is overlaid the blurred land at 60mph. I include a few screencaps for the purposes of this commentary.



As we know, the majority of new prison construction in the past 30 years has occurred in rural America and in post-industrial towns. The “logic” was to replace the dead agriculture and manufacturing jobs with prison jobs. However, the small (and ever-decreasing) benefits that may have been brought to struggling, job-scarce populations are eclipsed by the hardships wrought upon prisoners and their distant friends and families. A Temporary Contact takes us on the weekend journey that family–mostly women and children–make; a journey essential for keeping family ties. Bear in mind that, for incarcerated persons, maintaining close relations with loved ones is the most important factor in helping them stay out the system after release.

New York state, as with other large states such as California, Texas and Illinois, is one of the worst offenders in siting prisons hundreds of miles from the communities from which prisoners are extracted. A Temporary Contact offers users a moment inside the collateral damage done by this particular extended and prohibitively expensive travel.

Some thoughts on the title: Temporary contact is fleeting, it’s real but not sustained. The title simultaneously recognises the intermittent opportunities that family have to make in-person visits (those with financial means and time, might make the journey as often as twice a month), but also points to our passing point of contact with a time-consuming (and likely foreign) travel-commitment which prisoners’ loved ones regularly and necessarily sign up for.

Despite the journey’s substantial 30-hour timeframe, it’s one that is largely self-contained and not seen … except for maybe the lines of people waiting for pick up at 34th street or Columbus Circle in NYC late on a Friday or Saturday evening. (For an in-depth photo essay on prison buses, please see Jacobia Dahm’s work; read the interview she and I did; and then read this follow-up conversation Dahm had with Candis Cumberbatch-Overton, who Dahm photographed as she visited her husband John.)

There are many revealing moments in A Temporary Contact and it’d be foolhardy to describe them; you should just sign up for the messages toy our own smartphone. The presence of time–and time seen–is part of the art’s structure! That said, I thought it instructive that immediately following their departure from the prisons, the women shared photos of their loved ones and talked about the costs to have the portraits made.

“The only thing we take out the visits,” says Amanda, “are the pictures.”



The women compare costs of a single Instax picture. In one prison it is $2 per photo. In another it is $4. They talk about physical changes, new facial hair, how they all appear in one another’s photos. They laugh and gripe about the quality of the murals in front of which they must stand for the portraits.

Visitors are allowed to have five pictures made on each visit. Despite the huge expense (relative to single prints in free society) the women tend to get five. Max out on memories. Optimise the presence of their loved one in the world. A photo is a thin slice of time, but it is a substantial presence in the free world of someone who is behind bars in a limbo-state of social death.



It seems that every photography conference these days is talking about getting beyond the frame, and using new technologies and digital platforms to tell stories. Peled and Kolster propose a model that delivers important, compelling content with direct efficiency. The bar for access is as low as it gets; who doesn’t have WhatsApp or Facebook on their phones at this point? The temporal quality of the project is key. The success of A Temporary Contact rests on the fact that, every one or two hours, users are prodded with gentle reminders of other’s devotion to time … time spent in love and support of prisoners.

I wholly recommend A Temporary Contact. I learnt new things, I think you will too.

A Temporary Contact was developed within the framework of the veryveryshort competition, a NFB and ARTE co-production in collaboration of IDFA Doclab. Very very short is a collection of 10 interactive projects for smartphones, exploring the theme of mobility through very, very short experiences – all under 60 seconds.

Creators: Nirit Peled & Sara Kolster
Camera: Aafke Beernink
Editor: Wietse de Swart
Additional editing: Paul Delput
Sound mix: Sander den Broeder
Color: Maurik de Ridder
Developer: Martijn Eerens
Scripting: Wireless Services
Music: Amit Gur & Itai Weissman
Cast: Amanda, Diamond, Gina, Latoya and Stephany
Research help: Ilja Willems, Five Mualimm-ak, Ray Simmons
Special thanks: Katie Turinski, Junior from Flambouyant Transportation Inc., Het Raam, Hortense Lauras




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