© Jacqueline Salmon

“In France, photography and prisons have rarely got along” says Clair Guillot for Le Monde (translated). Guillot, prompted by the current exhibition L’Impossible Photographie, Prisons Parisiennes (1851-2010), speculates on the common conditions for prison photographers listing limited access, lack of light and space, constant supervision and uncertain scheduling.Guillot quotes Mathieu Pernot, a photographer occupied by issues of the Panopticon, ‘In prison, the main body is the eye, because the buildings are designed to improve monitoring. At the same time prisoners are held [partly] to deprive them of self-image [and held to deny society his image and presence.]’ I paraphrase due to the vagaries of translation.

(Pernot is flavour-of-the-month, right now, exhibiting in Fotodok’s State Of Prison show in Amsterdam as well as this Parisian outing.)

Guillot goes on to suggest that there has been a recent rise in the practice of prison photography, yet she doesn’t provide projects or practitioners on which she bases that statement.

Whether or not praxis and interest in prison photography is on the up, the ever-existing requirement of French law not to show the faces of prisoners is a steady constant. This is a paradox that needs explaining and, to some extent, apologising for. The effort and will of prison photographers to reveal the hidden arguably achieves the opposite; images of faceless prisoners only contribute more abstracted views of prisons.

Is photography the right tool for the job of describing prisons and the lives within?

Let’s take a look at the work of a couple of the prison photographers in the l’Impossible Photographie show, and evaluate their contributions to this proposed fledgling genre. Matheiu Pernot, Jacqueline Salmon and Michel Semeniako were commissioned for the show. A request was made access for five photographers, but the authorities only allowed three.JACQUELINE SALMON

Jacqueline Salmon‘s photograph are straight environmental studies. In some works she uses the silhouettes of cage, fence and shadow. Often Salmon’s images will offer the promise of a window or vista only to present a barrier or razor wire immediately behind the promise. These are images of frustration. When Salmon documents open doors, they are within larger areas of containment, not strategically imperative and are not policed by the disciplining authority. Through some of these are the work and leisure activities offered at Le Santa Prison, Paris; gymnasium, family rooms, kitchen, chapel and laundry.

Salmon’s use of orange is occasionally reminiscent of Mikhael Subotzky’s studies in South African prisons and of course echoes the jumpsuits we’ve come to associate with the global and most lawless of prisons – allied sites of detention, Guantanamo, Bagram and beyond …

It is very difficult to be a fair judge when one only has 300 pixel wide website images to go by, but there are 40 images to browse and take in. Aside of the debates about artistic merit, the project as a contemporary document of an old and famous prison in the French capital is an achievement in itself.


Salmon’s impartial observations lie in contrast to Michel Semeniako‘s close engagement with the inmates. Semeniako conducted portrait workshops but not permitted to exhibit this work he collaborated with inmates on still lives of their possessions; portraits of men as evidenced by the objects they possess.

Screengrab. Varga Traian, Maison d’arrêt de Paris-la-Santé, 2009. © Michel Semeniako.

It’s an interesting concept and an approach used by other prison photographers (Jeff Barnett-Winsby and Edmund Clark spring to mind). For Semeniako’s project, each prisoner is a co-author of the images. Could we argue that this is part rehabilitation, part art, part documentary? I guess one must decide on how wants to judge Semeniako’s project first.

I’ll judge it on two criteria; firstly, on the self-esteem and therapeutic advantages for the prisoners in discussing and constructing ones own environment for presentation; and secondly, on the otherwise impossible connection to prisoners’ lives which is afforded to viewers of the photographs. This connection informs (just a little) and in so doing completes a minor but profound transaction initiated by Semeniako and each prisoner during their discussion on how to assemble their still lives.


Brendan Seibel penned an overview of the l’Impossible Photographie. Seibel concludes that the exhibit is large and potentially overwhelming;

“Tying the exhibition together is not chronology but classification. Rooms are broken down by location, with contributions by a steady cast of photographers spread throughout. Women’s prisons La Petite Roquette and Saint-Lazare reveal a jarring juxtaposition of nuns and incarceration, the role of religion in rehabilitation. The men’s – Grand Roquette, Sainte-Pelagie, Mazas and Santé – lay clustered together, more barren and austere. Throughout the exhibition essays on each prison, brief summations of photographers, developments in regulations and politics accompany each turn of the corner.”

Seibel was particularly engaged by the archive of Henri Manuel from the 20s and 30s. Manuel was employed by the French government to document the prison and justice systems. He gained unprecedented access and his prints are pivotal in the genre of prison photography.

Other artists include photographer Pierre Jouve (talking here, in French, about his juvenile detention photographs), also designer/photographer Anne-lise Dees and the photographer/oral historian Catherine Rechard.



© Catherine Rechard.

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All in all, this exhibit is a significant attempt to reconcile the curiosity and desire to see the activities of the state (think about the ethics and standards debates about military embedded journalists) with the work of artists who endeavour in to do so. Perhaps Guillot is right, perhaps following this exhibition, prison photography may be defining the parameters of its own genre?

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The Carnavalet is hosting a series of tours, discussions and other events related to the exhibition. A schedule can be found here.

l’Impossible Photographie
From now until 4 July 2010
7€/5€ Reduced 10:00-18:00
Closed Mondays and Holidays
Musée Carnavalet
23 rue de Sévigné
Mº St-Paul/Chemin Vert