I was recently interviewed by Zarina Holmes at Sojournposse about my project here at Prison Photography. Zarina’s questions were refreshing as I have a tendency to get stuck in my own thinking and politics sometimes.

The interview itself is a little long (my fault) but results from an effort to fairly explain the nuance of images from sites of incarceration.

One of the things I continually grapple with is who benefits from prison photography projects? Is it the prisoners, the audience or the prison authorities? There is no definitive answer. In the interview, however, I did make this statement:

“People are tempted to believe that creating an image from within a prison – a rare/privileged viewpoint – is in and of itself a subversive act. In fact, what I often discover is that photography in prisons and other sites of incarceration is not challenging the organisational structure of the institution but rather working within its protocols. Thus, many prisons neutralise “the power of photography” or the camera’s ability to operate as a tool for social change.”

I have not articulated this thought so bluntly before. I think it applies to a lot of photographers working in restricted institutions or milieus.

Think about it – the most famous prison images of the 21st century are those of Abu Ghraib. Those images had a global reach and brought about change yet they were amateur shots leaked against the interests of the US military (the prison authority). Photographers are never going to just walk in the front gate unannounced. Nor are they going to be welcomed by prison administrations to document the pain and abuses within.

What does that make prison photographs then?