Sye Williams will tell you himself he is not political-engaged in prisons issues. He wanted to shoot a photo-story in a prison and wanted to provide viewers “a slice of life” of the female prisoners at Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) in Chowchilla, California.

Sye likes to get inside of sub-cultures. In the past, Sye has shot teenage wrestlers, fringe sports-folk and even adopted the persona of a journeyman fighter in order to get inside the world of the amateur boxing circuit. He lost his first bout, but returned a second night with dyed hair and different (leopard skin) shorts to fight again.

Sye, whose film photographs from VSPW have an eerie blue-green institutional patina, visited the prison in 2000. His first impression was that the prison looked like a vocational college. Still, Sye says, “I didn’t see a lot of optimism. […] Everyone always talked about coming back.”

Over five days Sye felt he (and his writing partner and assistants) had virtual unhindered access. Furthermore, he praises the accommodations made by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for his project. It is unusual for prison photographers to report such freedom within the walls.

Sye is also one of the very few prison photographers to have made multiple portraits of prison staff. He attributes this to the more relaxed atmosphere in a women’s prison. Due to fewer incidents of violence, Sye’s impression was that staff considered work at a women’s prison as a step toward retirement.

Sye’s curiosity leads him to wonder what has happened to the women in the interim ten years and, given the opportunity, he would like to make portraits of them now (whether they are incarcerated or not) a decade on.

We talk about the willingness of women to be photographed, the difficult circumstances of a few of his subjects and the logic of a women’s facility as it compares to a men’s prison.


All images © Sye Williams