You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2010.

From Boing Boing:

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today released evidence it says indicates that the Bush administration conducted “illegal and unethical human experimentation and research” on detainees’ response to torture while in CIA custody after 9/11. The group says such illegal activity would violate the Nuremburg Code, and could open the door to prosecutions. Their report is based on publicly available documents, and explores the participation of medical professionals in the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program.” Download the full report at”

Boing Boing goes on to interview the Dr. Scott Allen, co-director of the Center For Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Brown University, and Medical Advisor to PHR.

Allen contends that the ongoing monitoring of torture techniques (waterboarding, stress positions) crossed over into note taking and experimentation on human subjects. Protocols would then demand the involvement of ethics board, consent forms, etc – the safeguards of legitimate research – but obviously, the US military and CIA never saw torture as “experimentation” in its most formal definition.

Allen: “I think it’s certainly possible that while they weren’t eagerly looking forward to setting up research they might have been backed into this by saying, let’s take notes. That citation we note of Appendix F in the CIA 2004 Inspector General’s report, the one that describes the directives to doctors, says, ‘Take these notes in a very meticulous way about how detainees respond to waterboarding so we can better inform our procedures in future.’ That’s describing the framework of a research protocol.”

The note-taking on interrogation techniques probably doesn’t surprise many, but the results of new legal avenues opened up by defining torture tactics as “experiment” and “research” may?

New York Times video The ‘Innocent Prisoner’s Dilemma pores over the profound moral dilemma innocent prisoners face when they present themselves to a parole board. The piece focuses on the case of Herbert Murray (above).


Showing remorse for the crime for which they he/she was sentenced increases a prisoner’s chances of parole; the parole board wants to see contrition, wants to see the individual accept the charges, faults and responsibility the court defined many years previous.

One problem. What if the offender was wrongfully convicted? What if he or she IS innocent? The situation becomes Kafkaesque; he or she must agree to a terrible and false scenario (their agency in a crime) in order to escape a much worse scenario (further imprisonment). If an innocent man or woman acknowledges responsibility in order to curry favour, they then become the writers not only of their own history but of their own future. The individual will be forever tied to his or her parole record and the “admission” of guilt.

Herbert Murray’s story is shocking. He spent more than 29 years in prison (he was eligible for parole after 15). Murray only got out due to advanced interventions from his original lawyer and the Second Look Clinic at Brooklyn Law School.


Have you ever wondered who sits on a parole board and makes the decisions that affect tens of thousands of prisoners lives each year?

This article Convicted of Murder as Teenager and Paroled at 41 by Trymaine Lee details the job-track:

“Parole Board members, who must have a college degree and five years of experience in criminal justice, sociology, law, social work or medicine, can serve an unlimited number of six-year terms, earning $101,600 a year. By law, they must interview inmates in person and are required to consider their criminal histories, prison achievements and sense of remorse. Ultimately, though, parole decisions are subjective.”

It is great to read reporting that brings a focus to the rudimentary details of staffing and regulation, in this case that of the parole systems. There are many different arms to the criminal justice system and often they don’t compliment one another. In Murray’s case, the parole system reinforced the mistake of the judicial system.

This expository journalism reminds me of NPR’s investigative series on the bail system in January, 2010.

– – –

Thanks to Stan for the tip.

New Orleans. In the collection of the Peter Sekear Estate.

Actually, Jacob Holdt was the new Peter Sekaer … we just never knew about Sekaer. Until now.


The New York Times reported today on Signs of Life at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, a major survey of Peter Sekaer’s life and of his works. Sekaer died prematurely in 1950 at the age of 49, leaving stacks of unsorted photographs.

Curator, Julian Cox said of his work, “We wanted to uncover this hidden gem. Sekaer was like the passage of a meteor, very bright but fairly brief.”

Sekaer often took photographic trips with friend Walker Evans. Sekaer photographed high streets, impoverished neighbourhoods, markets and games. He photographed signs and billboards. From 1936-43 he worked on assignment for various government agencies including the FSA, the USHA and the REA. His task was to document the depressed country and thus Seaker photographed a lot of poor Americans.

Excepting the New Deal agencies, this focus and unexpected coverage was repeated 40 years later by another Dane.

Jacob Holdt‘s ongoing life’s work American Pictures* is equally committed to describing the hardships of the American South. Holdt met many people suffering in a discriminatory culture with discriminatory laws. (I wrote about Holdt following his autobiographical presentation at the 2009 New York Photography Festival.

Holdt (b.1947) is the geist of Sekaer.

It should be noted Holdt doesn’t call himself a photographer, rather a man who uses the camera as a tool in his activism. Sekaer was professional from 1936 onward.


It would be foolish to attribute their curiosity and achievements to their Danish heritage, or to suggest that foreign eyes can see with more clarity the shortcomings of their host nation. Sekaer and Holdt likely were/are simply good people with a belief in stories to be told.

Sekaer was an anomaly for his time; an outspoken, moody Dane, with a German camera, asking folk about their lives. Sekaer’s daughter, Christina explains that it wasn’t just his eyes that made his photographs, Sekaer’s voice did too, “His accent helped people want to talk to him.”

Sixty years on, it’s nice to meet you Mr. Sekaer.

More images here.

Peter Sekaer (American, born Denmark, 1901–1950)

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1901, Peter Sekaer immigrated to the United States in 1918 at the age of seventeen. After successfully operating a printing business in New York City producing posters, advertisements and window displays, he enrolled in the Art Students League in 1929 to study painting. He soon became involved in the New York art scene, befriending, among others, the artist Ben Shahn and the photographer Walker Evans.

By 1934 Sekaer had left painting behind to study photography with Berenice Abbott at the New School for Social Research. Through his friendship with Walker Evans he secured contracts from 1936 to 1943 to work on assignment as a photographer for various government agencies that were created as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program. In 1945 Sekaer started his own commercial photography business, shooting advertisements and human interest stories for magazines.

In 1950, at age forty-nine, Sekaer suffered a fatal heart attack. His life’s work has been preserved by his wife, Elisabeth Sekaer Rothschild, and their younger daughter, Christina Sekaer.

'Family Shelling Pecans, Austin, Texas', 1939. G Peter Sekaer. Collection of the High Art Museum, Atlanta. Purchased with funds from Robert Yellowlees.

Signs of Life: Photographs by Peter Sekaer is the first major exhibition dedicated to the work of the Danish-born American photographer Peter Sekaer. Organized by the High, the exhibition runs June 5, 2010 through January 11, 2011. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree Street, N.E. Atlanta, Georgia 30309.

– – –

*Conflating Holdt and Sekaer further, a 1999 exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art was titled ‘Peter Sekaer: American Pictures’. I don’t know if the curators knew of Holdt’s body of work.

Photographing an American Marine with a malnourished boy during Operation Restore Hope, Mogadishu, Somalia (1991). © Paul Lowe/Panos

Victor Acquah has established AfricanLens to present African nations as “you” and “photojournalists who travel across the continent see it.” Hopefully, AfricanLens as a collaborative space for photographers contributing outside of their employers’ (agencies’) influence or editors’ decisions may dish up some novel, calmer stories.

AfricanLens also provides a platform for analysis. Early indications – and early contributors – are good. David Campbell, professor of cultural and political geography at Durham University, over the past couple of years has published (to academia AND blogs) excellent research and positions on media and photography; Campbell’s editorial for AfricanLens takes on the potential pitfalls of the debate about defining Africa:

“What is the visual story that needs to be told about Africa? … Would we even ask that question of the Americas, Asia or Europe? It is unlikely. Others are represented in ways designed to shore up the self and  ‘Africa’ is central to the formation of European and North American identity.”

This is a familiar argument, and inasmuch as it still exists, I reckon it is as valid as ever; visual consumption is almost always simplifying and reductive. Would we be better with dozens of  [Insert individual African nation names here]Lens instead of AfricanLens? Possibly, but let us not expect to run before we can walk. That Campbell’s position questions some tenets of AfricanLens itself would suggest this is to be an intellectually honest and open forum.

Campbell presented the above image from Somalia by Paul Lowe in 1991. Lowe’s image is an echo of Nathan Weber’s from Haiti (talked about here) and reminds me that discourse on the use and usefulness of photography outside our borders is as vital as ever.

Good luck to Victor and AfricanLens.

Photographers and Fabienne Cherisma, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 19th 2010. © Nathan Weber

I wanted to trace the physical and psychic contours of the world of these young people to see what they might reveal. Juvies is not only a document, but also a query about perception. Do we know who these young people are and what we are doing to them?

Ara Oshagan

The Open Society Documentary Photography Project launches Moving Walls 17 exhibit today. Ara Oshagan, one of the seven award recipients, alerted me to the New York launch and his inclusion, Juvies: A Collaborative Portrait of Juvenile Offenders.

Juvies is collaborative because often his images are accompanied by the handwritten texts of incarcerated young people. Frequently the writings focus on emotional ties, problems with self esteem, the powerlessness against a system. It makes sense then that many of Oshagan’s photographs are visually-fractured, detached.

Compositions of door-frames, window reflections, outside corridors and gestures to action the other side of barriers describe very literally the immediate limitations these young people face daily. Oshagan’s work is not to politicise, but to describe (as best that is possible in the manipulating medium of photography.)

Oshagan explains, “I did not meet any angry or tattoo-ridden kids decked out in the clothes and accessories that could mark them as members of the city’s gang culture. Rather, I found a group of ordinary young men and women who had signed up for a video production class. When I spoke to them, they were deferential. For them, candy was the “contraband” article they had brought to class. Some of the kids were interested in photography and told me about how they strove to learn white balance. I listened to one of the kids play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on [a keyboard]. And somehow I had come full circle: I had played that exact same piece to my own son the night before. Suddenly, the distance between the inside and the outside seemed to vanish into thin air, a vast gulf turned into an imperceptible chimera.”


Before accompanying filmmaker friend, Leslie Neale* into Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall, Oshagan wasn’t an activist or particularly interested in prison reform. Oshagan admits the exposure to the system and young lives within was disorienting. From Oshagan’s artist statement:

“I was in a privileged place that allowed the perceptions that existed in my head to be confronted by the realities I was witnessing in the closed and misunderstood world of incarceration. What I was seeing was also raising issues that would not give me peace.”

“I can understand why Mayra might get life in prison for shooting her girlfriend from point blank range. But how could a combination of relatively minor charges result in the same life sentence for Duc, an 18-year-old who, despite having no prior convictions, was convicted in a shooting crime that resulted in no injuries and in which he did not pull the trigger? And why did Peter – a 17-year-old piano prodigy and poet – get 12 years in adult prison for a first time assault and breaking and entering offense? Why is the justice system so harsh on kids who clearly have potential?”


In addition to the walls, the guards, the other incarcerated people, the yards, the bunk beds, Oshagan also photographed families and communities left behind as well as the courts and victims. Sadly, I cannot present these images here but consider them essential in Oshagan’s “layered photographic narrative”.

These young people cannot be ignored. Our actions, just as theirs have ramifications both sides of the walls.

Two weeks ago the Supreme Court of the United States of America changed law, ruling life imprisonment without parole (LWOP) for a non-capital offense by a juvenile was to be removed from the books. Get past the fact that such harsh punishment was illogic and cruel and one soon arrives at the maddening circumstances of some of Oshagan’s subjects, Duc.

High school student Duc was arrested for driving a car from which a gun was shot. Although no one was injured, Duc was not a member of a gang, had no priors and was 16 years old, he received a sentence of 35 years to life

Again, to quote Oshagan, “Do we know who these young people are and what we are doing to them?”

* Oshagan did the B-Roll for Neale’s documentary film Juvies, whose own words about the juvenile detention system are worth taking in.


Born into a family of writers, Ara Oshagan studied literature and physics, but found his true passion in photography. A self-taught photographer, his work revolves around the intertwining themes of identity, community, and aftermath.

Aftermath is the main impetus for his first project, iwitness, which combines portraits of survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915 with their oral histories. Issues of aftermath and identity also took Oshagan to the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the South Caucasus, where he documented and explored the post-war state of limbo experienced by Armenians in that mountainous and unrecognized region. This journey resulted in a project that won an award from the Santa Fe Project Competition in 2001, and will be published by powerHouse Books in 2010 as Father Land, a book featuring Oshagan’s photographs and an essay by his father.

Oshagan has also explored his identity as member of the Armenian diaspora community in Los Angeles. This project, Traces of Identity, was supported by the California Council for the Humanities and exhibited at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 2004 and the Downey Museum of Art in 2005. Oshagan’s work is in the permanent collections of the Southeast Museum of Photography, the Downey Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in Armenia.


Also supported by the Open Society Documentary Photography Project are Jan Banning, Mari Bastashevski, Christian Holst, Lori Waselchuk & Saiful Huq Omi and The Chacipe Youth Photography Project.

Invisible Scars is a portrait series of “the older generation in Cambodia that represents survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 70s. Most of this group were forced to leave their village to undertake slave labour in the ricefields … The ones that survived returned to their homelands after the Khmer Rouge period in 1979.  Some talk about what happened 35 years ago, others close their eyes or even turn away and continue what they were doing, taking care of their grandchildren.”

I am well aware of several photographers having dealt with the torture camps and prisons of Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia (not least those of Nhem Ein, official prison photographer for the Tuol Sleng prison). I will return to these practitioners and history in time, but for now I’ll just alert you to this one project by Eric de Vries.

Thanks to Bob for the tip off.

Relation, 2001 [from “Vestige”] © Riitta Päiväläinen

Anyone else notice Shane – over the weekend – spewing out content quicker than BPs worst nightmare?

And what quality. In two days we had:
Timothy Briner: Boonville
Thomas Bangsted: Pictures
Sasha Bezzubov: Wildfire
Céline Clanet: Máze
Ralph Shulz: Theater
Charles Fréger: Fantasias
Riitta Päiväläinen: Vestige
Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk: The Andromeda Strain

Good stuff.

Fantasias 9, 2008 [from “Fantasias”] © Charles Fréger

Hopper’s closing remark really stuck, “I am just a custodian. Hopefully, they’ll all end up in a museum”. I hope so too, Dennis.

Found via dvafoto and woostercollective.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


Prison Photography Archives

Post Categories