© Philippe Bazin

Last month, Melinda Hawtin contacted me about her interest and graduate research into the representations of prisons in French contemporary photography.

My position in the world is a little more comfortable knowing that another human has the niche commitment to prison photography!

Hawtin’s geography-specific project is even more narrowly defined as mine. She humbly referred to her blog as “yet a vessel for my (mostly) unresearched musings but I am hoping that in time it will take on a more coherent form”. Martin’s posts are far more than her modesty suggests – they are important introductions to academics, works and points of analysis.

Hawtin introduced me to the work of Philippe Bazin, whose series Détenus is a straight photographic study of French prisoners. Hawtin is discomforted somewhat by Bazin’s sentimentalisation of prisoners, “it seems strange and rather naive that artists like Bazin are so keen to portray the humanity of inmates. I’m not suggesting that they demonise them instead but monochrome, close-up images of prisoners could be seen to be over-romanticising the prisoner”.

© Philippe Bazin

My take? Intimate shots do not automatically translate to sentimentalisation or captures of “true” humanity. It is always hazardous to prescribe the reaction of an audience to a photographic style. I would step back (possibly cowardly) and suggest that Bazin’s portraits are worthwhile simply because they differ in tone from the vast majority of other photographic studies of prisoners.

Hawtin and I swapped resources and names including the excellent Visa pour L’Image web documentary winner, Jean Gaumy and Lizzie Sadin, whose photography focuses on juveniles in prisons across the globe, including her own nation of France.

Investigations into the portrayal of French prisoners could not be more timely:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called French prisons “the shame of the nation”, and the European Union has demanded that France improve the detention conditions of its inmates to meet minimum European standards.

I’ll be sure to check in with Hawtin’s blog regularly.

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