The illicit manufacture of tools by prisoner piqued Marc Steinmetz‘s curiosity. He called around German prisons to inquire if they were still in possession of particularly ingenious contraband tools and escape devices.

Santa Fu, Celle, Wolfenbuttel and Ludwigsburg prisons all welcomed Steinmetz to view their collections. (The historical objects of Stammheim and Hohenasperg prisons were part of the Ludwigsburg collection.)

Steinmetz’s photographs were used in a German magazine editorial, but I have seen similar series of object types displayed as fine art.

When photographers set up objects (food, seeds, dead birds, insects, fish, etc) it is usually to draw extended attention to common characteristics and impose drama upon ‘the ordinary’. Against a white backdrop and removed form the clutter of daily life, it is intended that these objects can (if only briefly) transcend their functional purpose and be appreciated within the discourses of beauty and/or high art.

Steimetz wanted to highlight the ingenuity and intelligent design of these objects, and I’d like to do the same.

I have included some weapons here and omitted others. I deliberately omitted crude weapons for this post as they are hardly novel … anything with any weight becomes a dangerous weapon, right? On the other hand, I included guns and rifles as I never thought they could be manufactured from scratch. I was particularly impressed by the electrical items.

Below are Prison Photography‘s pick of the bunch with Steinmetz’s own captions. Thereafter is a brief Q & A with Steinmetz.

flucht_pistole

DOUBLE-BARRELED PISTOL This gun was found along with other homemade firearms in the cell of two Celle prison inmates on November 15, 1984. The weapons had been made in the prison’s metal workshop. They were loaded with pieces of steel and match-heads.

flucht_tattoo

TATTOOING NEEDLE made from a toothbrush handle, a ball pen and an electric motor; confiscated in ‘Santa Fu’ prison in Hamburg, Germany. Tattooing instruments are a popular and common source of income among inmates but are banned as ‘illegal objects’ due to the danger of infection (Aids, Hepatitis, etc.).

flucht_grill

STOVE / GRILL / TOASTER An inmate of Ludwigsburg prison, Germany, botched together this multi-purpose tool from wire, a broken heating rod and some tin foil. It was found in his cell and confiscated sometime in the mid-eighties.

flucht_tube

HASH PIPE fashioned from an empty horseradish tube; confiscated in ‘Santa Fu’ prison in Hamburg, Germany. Bongs are the most common of all forbidden items in prisons. The range of materials they are made of mirrors the inmates’ great imagination. And their prior needs.

flucht_wanze

RADIO TRANSMITTER / BUG made of radio recorder parts by an inmate of Wolfenbüttel prison, Germany (battery is missing). Prisoners occasionally manage to install gizmos like this one in guard-rooms to be prepared for upcoming cell searches. Also suitable as a means of cell-to-cell communication among inmates. A standard radio serves as a receiver.

flucht_tauchsieder

IMMERSION HEATER made from razor blades; found in a cell in ‘Santa Fu’ jail in Hamburg, Germany. Jailbirds use these tools to distil alcoholic beverages forbidden in prisons. Your typical inmate’s moonshine still includes a plastic can containing fermented fruit mash or juice, an immersion coil of some sort, a rubber hose, and a plastic receptacle for the booze.

flucht_buch

RADIO RECEIVER Sometime in the seventies an inmate of Ludwigsburg prison, Germany, built this radio on the sly and hid it inside an encyclopedia. It was probably commissioned by another inmate who had no electronic expertise himself.

flucht_gewehr

SHOTGUN made from iron bedposts; charge made of pieces of lead from curtain tape and match-heads, to be ignited by AA batteries and a broken light bulb. On May 21, 1984 two inmates of a prison in Celle, Germany, took a jailer as a hostage, showed off their fire power by letting go at a pane of bullet-proof glass, and escaped by car.

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Q & A

When did you complete this project and why did you take on this subject?

I shot the whole project in April and May 1999. I had read a magazine article about a prisoner in Berlin who had whittled a key to his cell from a toilet seat. Unfortunately, prison officials in Berlin weren’t cooperative, so I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of that key for ‘security reasons’. (Can you believe that?).

But it nevertheless provided the key to the story and got me interested. Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine editors [provided a catalyst] too – they bought the story.

The objects range in date from the 70s through to the mid 90s and from multiple German prisons. How and where did you source the objects?

Prisons often have a collection of items which were secured from inmates’ cells or after attempts at escape.

I did my research exclusively by phone and located a handful of prisons which seemed worth a visit. I decided then and there which objects to photograph.

Much of your previous photography has been about complex scientific experimentation and grand research. Was this project a departure?

Not at all. I have always been interested in the uncommon or even bizarre.

What about the objects is of interest to you?

Ingenuity of improvisation. Intelligence. Purposefulness.

In my work, not everything depends on meticulous planning, but to a great extent on chance and my ability to improvise. Therefore I can relate to these escape tools. I admire their no-nonsense design, their simplicity. Even if their escape attempts fail, these guys cross boundaries in that they find uses for things other than what they were made for.

What do your photographs of the objects add to the stories objects?

To me, they communicate intelligence and the flexibility of the human mind under adverse conditions. I wanted to share my surprise: ‘What the … ?’

Did this project inform or reflect your understanding of German prisons, prison history and/or current prison politics?

Not really. I wasn’t interested in the political or social aspects of the subject matter. It was an interesting experience, though, to get to peek inside these facilities even though I had no contact with any of the inmates.

To compensate for that and to communicate credibility, I tried to collect as much information about the objects as I could. I felt they should be preserved the same way that archaeological artifacts are.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I am working on an independent project which is called ‘Toter Winkel’. I am still searching for an international title which works both in German and English, even though I focus exclusively on Germany.

I started wondering about what cars have done to our cities. I ended up doing night shots of elevated roads with a 4×5″ field camera. It’s hard to believe what monstrosities have been erected for the sake of misconceived mobility!

But this is more of a long-term fine art project than an editorial piece. Fieldwork is completed, but post-production will take a few more months, I’m afraid.

Thank you, Marc

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Marc Steinmetz is a photographer specialising in Science and Technology stories. Prison Photography recommends his work on Plasticination, Karakarum – The Archaeology of Genghis Kahn’s Empire and his series on Drinking Water. An extended interview with Marc, is here.

flucht_milch

DUMMY PISTOL from blackened cardboard; found on June 23, 1988, in an inmate’s cell in Stammheim prison, Germany, after a fellow prisoner tipped off the jailers. The dummy was hidden in an empty milk pack and was most probably intended to be used for taking hostages in an escape attempt.

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All images © Marc Steinmetz.

I originally came across Steinmetz’s work at Accidental Mysteries – a blog I highly recommend for its polished curatorial eye of surprising, inventive and humourous human interventions.

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