Golf Five Zero watchtower. Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Northern Ireland, UK.  © Jonathan Olley.

Last month, I had a jolly nice chat with a jolly nice chap about what all this means at Prison Photography. Where’s this open journal taking me?

I said if I took this whole thing to the academy, it could be as simple as a historic survey: The Uses of Photography to Represent, Control and Surveil Prison, Prisoners and Publics in the United States (1945 – 2010).

I was encouraged to ditch the historical view and engage the modern. Ask myself, why should anyone care about prisons? Only a small minority care now and that status quo has remained for many reasons tied up in the antagonisms of capitalism. Would a historical survey change minds and attitudes or just lay out on paper the distinctions most people have already made between themselves and those in prison?

Perhaps people would care more if the abuse of human rights that exists within the criminal justice system of America were shown to impinge on everyone, not only on those caught in its cogs?*

What if we consider the methods and philosophies of management used by prisons and identify where they overlap with management of citizens in the “free” society. Think corporate parks, protest policing, anti-photography laws, stop and search, street surveillance, wire taps, CCTV.

My contention has always been that there was no moral division or severance of social contract over and through prison walls. For me it’s never been us & them; it is us & others among us put in a particular institution we call prison.

But, now I am seeing also, there is an ever decreasing division of tactics either side of prison walls. Strategies of management and technologies of discipline perfected in prisons have crept into daily routine.

What has this emphasis on containment and of monitoring – at the expense of education and social justice – done to our society and to our expectations of society?


And now for the tie in with photography…

Thinking about surveillance, obviously we have the big show at Tate from this Summer, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera with its devoted section to CCTV. (Jonathan Olley‘s work from Northern Ireland is the standout.)

But I always think back to Tom Wichelow‘s series Whitehawk CCTV (1999), possibly because he insists it is not a criticism of CCTV just a look at the politicisation of the human subject viewed through its lens.

Most remarkable in the series is the trio of images of the tragic site of a murder. They reveal to us that looking and bearing witness can be an act of respect as much as that of curiosity as much as an act of control. We are all compelled to look, but some observers are recording the feed and have a disciplinary apparatus to back it up.

Untitled (CCTV footage). Young family visits murder site. Brighton 1999. © Tom Wichelow

Untitled. Friends of murdered boy visit the site. Brighton 1999. © Tom Wichelow

Untitled. Resident reveals murder site outside her bungalow window. Brighton 1999. © Tom Wichelow

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*There’s a simple argument that we all suffer because our tax dollars support a broken system that makes us no safer.