Untitled (from Lockdown)

Dread Scott‘s 2004 Lockdown pairs portraits with audio statements from the prisoners. The stories intend to represent the two million-plus inmates in American prisons. Dread’s belief is that America is defined by its criminal justice system and its incarcerated masses. This is not a position I would query.

Ostensibly, Lockdown is a less confrontational work than his renowned What is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag? (1988) but the strength of the polemic, from which it stems, is no less.

Dread has drawn strong support as well as well-publicised contempt for his art and politics. Even the most respected progressive voices in politics, theory and photography have paused to question the coherence of his work. Dread, I trust, would expect no less than strong reaction to his work.

Among other identifiers, Dread is an avowed Maoist. He has stated, “This is a world where a tiny handful controls the great wealth and knowledge humanity as a whole has created.” In America more than any other ‘developed’ nation this statement applies. Dread’s political statement must be taken as delivered and used as the departure point for this work.

For our interview, I wanted to focus on Dread’s efforts and successes in accessing prisons, drawing testimony and mounting the piece. And to find out why these efforts were necessary.

Q & A

PP: How many prisons/jails did you visit while making Lockdown?
DS: I visited one prison and I went to another where I was turned away at the last minute.  I also worked with some youth who had been in the system, but were not locked up at the time I photographed and interviewed them.  This is also true of one adult ex-con I worked with.

PP: How many portraits are in the series?
DS: There are eleven that I show.  Obviously I took more, but there are eleven that are good. I also would like to expand the project but I have no plans to do this at the moment.

PP: Did you choose the sitters or did they choose you?
DS: In most cases the prison chose them and told them that a photographer wanted to do a project involving prisoners.  Then once I met with them I discussed more about the project and most of them wanted to be part of it.

PP: Were there prisoners who were simply not eligible for participation in Lockdown? If so, for what reasons?
DS: I wanted to get a somewhat broad sampling of the prison population. In many respects this was achieved, but because I was unable to work on the project as extensively as I would have liked, some types of prisoners aren’t in the project.  For example, I didn’t get to any women’s facilities, any jails and I was not to visit any prisoners on Death Row.

PP: Did you ever photograph a prisoner having had no prior contact or discussion?
DS: Generally this is how the project was done – I would be introduced to them and photograph them in the same day.

PP: Who controlled the length of time you had to introduce your project to, and work with, each of the sitters?
DS: Ultimately, it was the prison that controlled the hours of the visit and how many I would be allowed.  But once that was set, I could spend as much or as little time with any one prisoner.

Untitled (from Lockdown)

PP: How did you organize yourself and your subjects during the projects as a whole? What forms did the communication take before, during and after the sitting for the photograph?
DS: With rare exception, I wasn’t able to communicate with the prisoners before the photography/interview session. The sessions were very intensive.  I generally wasn’t able to spend more than an hour with each prisoner.  Often I only had about 40 minutes so the work was done quickly.  I would start by discussing what I was trying to do with the project and let them know that I wasn’t working with the prison and in fact that I was a revolutionary and I felt that the whole system was worthless.  Which is not what the project was about but I wanted them to know where I was coming from.  If after knowing more about me and the project they wanted to participate, we would move forward.

Generally, I would then photograph them and then I would interview them, which in many ways was just a conversation. As a preface to the interview I would say something like “It’s clear that the main requirement to get into jail today is that you be poor and Black or Latino. Who is in jail? I need to learn your story and want to tell it. Many people don’t know. And those that do know, people like you and your family aren’t talking about it enough. I need the truth. What happened? How did you end up here? I want to put faces on the slaves of these prisons, which are like modern day slave ships that don’t float.” Then we did the interview. As for more communication after the session, unfortunately the prison that I was working with made this impossible. I sent photographs of all the prisoners to them and I wrote again thanking them for participating. I never heard back from anyone. What I later learned when I met one of the prisoners when he was on the outside, he said that neither he nor anyone else ever got any photo or letter from me.

PP: How do you deal with impartiality?
DS: I am not impartial. I think that this is an unjust society and has exploitation woven into it’s very fabric – a society where a tiny handful control the wealth and knowledge that humanity as a whole has created. The imprisonment of two million+ people shines a lot of light on the society as a whole. I wanted to bring to light the people that are latterly hidden from society broadly and make a work that presented portraits of these hidden people and brought of out the insights they have about the society that imprisons them. Because these people and there ideas are written out of the popular discourse in society, I think that this project can reveal a lot about the society as a whole. The prisoners express their individual views and don’t necessarily share all of mine, but through the work as a whole, an audience has the opportunity to grapple with a lot about the foundations of this society and see and meet people who have a lot to say about it.

PP: What reasons did each of the inmates have for taking part? Were their reasons opinions that you also held or had previously held?
DS: Many of the prisoners initially met me because it was a break from their daily routine. Some were intrigued by the change and chance to work with some sort of photographer. Most didn’t know much about the project prior to meeting me. But once they met me they mostly decided to participate because they wanted to have both their individual story put out in the world, but also they saw this as a chance to be part of a broader conversation about a country that imprisons over two million people. There was also a small minority who were looking for some angle to shorten their time or hoped I was a vehicle to communicate with people outside.

PP: Did you take many pictures of the same sitter? Did the inmates of each portrait have a say in which print you chose for exhibition?
DS: Yes, I generally took about 20 pictures of each person. Sometimes a few more and occasionally less. Because the prison prevented me from communicating with them, they weren’t able to have any input into the portrait that I used.


PP: James Clifford has said, “Represented voices can be powerful indices of a living people – more so even than photographs, which, however realistic and contemporary, always evoke a certain irreducible past tense.” How important to this piece are the audio tracks; the ‘represented voices’ of the inmates?
The audio is essential. It is as much part of the project as the photographs and I will not exhibit the work without the audio.  One thing that I wanted to do with Lockdown is bring the faces, voices and ideas of those who are hidden behind bars in the gallery and museum setting. People throughout society need to see who is imprisoned and know what insights they have in the world.  So there is an important level of the ideas. But there is also a question of voice. It is very specific and allows the audience to encounter the prisoners in a much more real and complex way.

PP: Did each inmate prepare a statement or do you edit audio in post-production from single unrehearsed dialogues?
DS: The audio is carefully edited from much longer interviews. The interviews typically were about 30-40 minutes. And the audio in the work uses about 3-6 minute excerpts.

PP: How do you describe the relationship between the collected raw data (first-hand spoken testimony; photographic documentation; a unique name/identity) and the cultural frame you set it in (gallery, public space, political statement)?
DS: The portraits and interviews form the basis for the work but the art, once it is exhibited is just that – art. The art would be inconceivable without the photos and interviews, but they have been selected & edited and assembled to be a coherent work of art.

PP: Does your artistic voice compete with the oral testimonies/voices of the men you photograph?
DS: While the testimonies of the individuals are important as an individual expressions, Lockdown is the opinionated view of its author. I am not mischaracterizing any of the individual stories, but I have put them within the overall meditation on a society that imprisons over two million people that is Lockdown. So my voice dominates on a certain level.  The work is really the collective voices and photograph, not the individual stories. It is made up of individuals, but I think that the whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts.  It is because of this, the way the work is structured overall, that it is not a “documentary” where one person’s story is next to their photograph and it is about all of the individuals. It is about what they, through the work as a whole, address as a group.

PP: About your work, you have said, “the continuum of history is a recurring theme in many of my works” and therefore inviting comparisons between past and present events. Do you use artistic devices, photographic or otherwise, to assist the viewers with these comparisons?
DS: Yes, but I don’t see the continuum of history as being so foregrounded in this work. Some of my projects will have a lynching paired with police brutality or an electric chair. This isn’t so much the case with this work. Though I did decide to make the portraits black and white which roots somewhat in the past and situates the theme of the work as being tied to a longer history as well as roots the project in a certain photographic tradition.

PP: Are you following a photographic tradition? If so, which elements of past photographic works inform Lockdown. If not, where then should people find their visual cues for reading the photographs?
DS: In making this work, I really appreciated Danny Lyons’ Conversations with the Dead.  My project is different but it is on this continuum. Also, Avedon’s In the American West. Again, I’m doing something different. I think Avedon is exoticizing his subjects a bit, but they are really great portraits and he does reveal things about the people he shoots that many outside of the culture don’t know about.  Meat packers and guys on oil rigs aren’t often part of Chelsea conversations.  Also, Roy DeCarava’s influenced this work. Particularly how he respected many of the people he photographed.  As the project is not just a photo project, I drew on other artistic traditions. Actually the text and image work from the 80s has informed me on works like this. I just use audio text rather than written. What I am doing is new, but it wouldn’t exist without these influences.


Dread Scott works in a range of media including installation, photography, screen printing, video and performance. Dread first received national attention as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1989, President Bush Sr. declared his installation What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? “disgraceful,” and the entire US Senate denounced the work when they passed legislation to “protect the flag.” As part of the popular effort opposing compulsory patriotism, he, along with three other protesters, burned flags on the steps of the US Capitol. This resulted in a Supreme Court case and a landmark decision.

In 1992, Dread was a fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program. In 1995, he was awarded a Mid Atlantic\National Endowment for the Arts Regional Fellowship in Photography. In 2000, he participated in the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue directed by Anna Deavere Smith at Harvard University. He has been awarded a Mid Atlantic/NEA Regional Fellowship in Photography, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Sculpture (2001) and Fellowship in Performance Art/Multi-disciplinary Art (2005), and a Creative Capital Foundation grant. In 2000 he participated in the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue directed by Anna Deavere Smith at Harvard University. That year he also worked on a Special Edition Fellowship at the Lower East Side Printshop.

His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, Robert Miller Gallery in New York, Brooklyn Museum, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum and the DeBeyerd Center for Contemporary Art in the Netherlands. His public sculptures have been installed at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York and Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota.

In 2008, the Museum of Contemporary African Disporan Art in Brooklyn, NY hosted Dread Scott: Welcome to America.

This interview provides more extensive coverage of Dread Scott’s oeuvre and politics.