Cell for prisoners sentenced to death (by hanging), Acre/Israel, 2004. © Harri Palviranta

Harri Pälviranta‘s Prison Sheets portfolio includes work from prisons in St. Petersburg, Russia; Tartu, Estonia; Vilnius, Lithuenia; Berlin, Germany; Hämeenlinna, Finland; Jerusalem and Acre, Israel; and Gjirokastra, Albania. The series was undertaken between 1999 and 2005.

There are two common characteristics of the prisons – a) they incarcerated political prisoners and b) they were sites of torture for ideological ends.

Pälviranta’s laminated digital C-prints mounted on aluminium and photographed with 4×5 color negative film are not to my taste (although I do like the Kieferesque mood of the image above) but Pälviranta makes an important point about prison museums:

Because I don’t have an experience-based knowledge of these places, I understand these museum prisons as travel attractions, memorials or discursive constructions. […] Prisons are never passive or meaningless, even though they are empty. The violating practices these places were built on are not absent in our times. […] As architectural constructions they are combination of sacred and evil.

That is to say that prison museums are places for meditation and pathways to activism. As reflexive spaces, prison museums allow us the perspective to see the human rights abuses of today by focusing on the crimes of the past. Today, we’re fed “mitigating” (political) factors for the physical abuse of GWOT prisoners in our custody, but torture is torture. Time doesn’t change that.


Previously on PP: Simulation and Memory: Prison Museums