Two weeks ago, I was lolling in bed with the local NPR station airing in the background. It was one of those times when the free sway between sleep and wake buoyed the iterations feeding the subconscious. The words from the waves were deep and clear and the meanings my own to navigate without the filters of plain-sailing reality. The whole reverie was quite comforting. Rick Steves was at the mic and his words about ‘otherness’ charted the same course my thoughts had – many times previous.

Rick Steves is a travel journalist who is keen to see (American) tourists embrace an less-disneyfied, more-connected type of travel. He was answering a listener’s question about border towns, but instead of responding with specific tales from specific towns Steves was much more interested in excavating the structure of thought that defines the appreciation of border towns. What parameters of thought do we rely on when thinking about borders? Why do border towns gain notoriety? Why do border towns evoke fear, love, misery and hope? Why do borders bring people escape, opportunity, exploitation, largess and threat?

Glyph Hunter, US Mexico Border

Photographer: Glyph Hunter, US Mexico Border

Before I quote Steves’ answer, I want to put his response into the context of my somnolent appreciation. Borders delineate two forms of existence; the difference sometimes extreme, and sometimes barely recognizable. Nevertheless, borders are defined by the imposition of different rules on either side. Borders have many manifestations and, unfortunately, walls have become a recent embodiment of bi-national relations.

Prisons also have central to their function the imposition of one set of rules on one side of the wall in order to maintain the prevailing rules on the other. A border delineates the exterior reaches of a territory, whereas the prison exists within the interior. The prison, historically, is less porous than a border and is more heavily policed – although in the case of the US border the distinctions are becoming less evident.

Eros Hoagland

Photographer: Eros Hoagland

In short, I believe prisons (and other sites of incarceration) should be thought as systems of state/corporate authority, based on the lowest common economic denominators, based on the concealment of activity and the creation of an excluded class whose definitions are open to manipulation. In the most tragic interpretation of Edward Said’s theory, I contend that on the other side of prison walls, just as on the other side of border walls, “The Other” exists.

And so, Rick Steves:

I am standing on top of the rock of Gibraltar. I read that this is the only place on the planet where you can see two continents and see two seas come together. There are tiderips. It is a confused sea, but there is food there. And all the seagulls go to the tiderips and the salmon are underneath, and the swarms of little herring, and so on … and it is a fascinating thing when two bodies of water come together. It makes danger for your boat, but there is food there and that is where the fish come and that is where people go for sustenance and that where the action is. And I am standing on the rock overlooking the tiderips. And there’s the ocean going freighters and the local people worried about the maritime environment. There are the stresses between Christianity and Islam which is just over [the water] in Africa, and that morning I was stood in a church, which was built on the ruins of a mosque, which was built on the ruins of a church, which itself was built on the ruins of a pre-Christian holy site! And if you can go to the places where cultures come together that’s where you have tension and you can have opportunity.

Translation – expect, witness and embrace difference in novel ways. Choose between tension and opportunity.

We have tension now [in America]. If we have unsophisticated political leadership, and dumbed down media and an electorate that doesn’t expect its neighbors to be nuanced and complex and more thoughtful in how they approach these challenges right now then the places where these cultures come together will be a big, expensive headache. And if we have smarter leadership and we engage the world, then the places where the cultures come together will be a plus. When we have cultures coming together in a constructive way it becomes a blessing instead of a curse. If it’s “my way or the highway” and if it’s just shock and awe then it’s not going to work.

Eros Hoagland

Photographer: Eros Hoagland

Steves wasn’t talking about methods of incarceration, but his structuralist description that clearly defined ecological, socio-cultural, tectonic and psychological tensions of borders reflected society’s same unconscious antagonism that I have observed in popular thought. At best the American public is apathetic; at worst, it breeds searing hatred of those on the other side of the walls.

In the case of prisons, the American public has been duped by dumbed down media – Cops, News bulletins disproportionately reporting crime, movies that exploit false stereotypes of prisons and prisoners. In the case of prisons, the American public has been scared by the shock and awe tactics of politicians – “Tough on Crime” rhetoric. In the case of prisons, the American public has been fooled by an unsophisticated civic leadership that panders to the public’s desire to not think any further than “throwing criminals” in prison – massive prison expansion, state budgets dominated by corrections spending. Prisons have become a big expensive headache.

Jon Lowenstein

Photographer: Jon Lowenstein

We need to stop ignoring the harsh facts about prisons and we need to bring them closer to our society, in which they sit. We need to reevaluate the failed prison expansion experiment of the past 30 years and we need to look upon the problem as an opportunity for sensible decision-making. We need to stop our fear and anger from dictating our reason and we need to analyse the system and not judge those subject to it.

The prison is a focus of hard emotions for those who reside, work and visit. It is a tumultuous place with fierce tensions. Those of us on the side of the wall with more resources and opportunity should think about how we can affect existence on the other side. We shouldn’t be fooled by the physical barrier dividing us because history has only ever shown that walls are temporary and humanity lasting. We should not allow the concrete walls to harden a psychological barrier to the communities on the other side. We should not find excuses – we should find opportunities.

Jon Lowenstein

Photographer: Jon Lowenstein

And with this said, it is apparent why photography as a medium appeals so personally to me. Of all media, photography seems one of the most responsible. Photography has a history of social responsibility. Photography, some would argue, takes a bit more effort than TV. If photography is to be allied to the moving image, I prefer it allied to cinema and film. I hope to support this theory over many more posts.

Image notes:

Eros Hoagland has recently done some excellent work in newly constructed prisons of Southern California that I shall return to soon.

Jon Lowenstein is extending his portfolio rapidly. He rightly won plaudits for his documentary work in South Chicago schools back in 2005. He continues his commitment to Chicago.

Glyph Hunter, by his own admission, got lucky and caught a great exposure.