Bettina von Kameke‘s series Wormwood Scrubs is a reflective look at the communal life of prisoners inside one of Britain’s most notorious prisons.

Wormwood Scrubs (Her Majesty’s Prison) is well known in Britain through both popular culture and sporadic news stories about the latest infamous prisoner. It is a institution everyone has heard, some would claim to know about, but in fact only a few truly know. Those few would be the staff and prisoners.

Von Kameke says:

“I was surprised at how respectful the interaction between staff and prisoners was. Of course I was aware that there is drug-dealing inside and it is a hard prison. I could feel the intensity and harshness of the energy… I reflected it in the sadness, heaviness, anger and frustration through the expressions on their faces. But the objective is to show the humanity in the system.”

I am impressed by von Kameke’s awareness (and depiction) of communal living.

“I question and explore the interior and exterior conditions, means and forces, which make a communal life sustainable. My photographs disclose the aesthetics of an enclosed community, which I carefully observe through the viewfinder of the camera.” (Source)

Prison jobs and recreational time are what make incarceration sustainable, and by that I mean as free from waste and repetition as possible.

Prisoners never make direct eye contact with von Kameke’s lens; she shoots as if she is not there. This, I suspect, has a lot to do with the amount of time she spent in Wormwood Scrubs; she spent over six months on the prison wings.*

She and the prisoners probably did have relationships, but they are not the subject of von Kameke’s photography; attentions are elsewhere … apparently.

Between von Kameke and her subjects is acceptance and restraint, almost to the point of collaboration. It cannot be overstated how difficult this is to achieve in a prison environment when everyone potentially has something to pursue and gain through interactions.

One final thing to note is the overlap in atmosphere between Wormwood Scrubs and von Kameke’s earlier series Tyburn Tree, which depicts the Benedictine Nuns of the Tyburn Tree Convent, London. Communal living within total institutions can be both enforced and voluntary.

Wormwood Scrubs is on show at Great Western Studios, 65 Alfred Road, London W2 5EU until March 11th.

More images at the Guardian.

* I always contend that the best prison photography projects result from a long term engagement with the subject. Von Kameke’s Wormwood Scrubs bears out this thesis oncemore.
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