Cruel and Unusual, an exhibition of prison photographs that I co-curated with Hester Keijser at the Noorderlicht Photo Gallery in Groningen, Netherlands closes on Sunday (8th).

You probably know about it because I haven’t been shy to promote it; it is one of my proudest achievements. I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you some thoughts on the Noorderlicht team and publish some installation shots. Part debrief, part abridged journal entries.

The show balanced two interrelated parts. One could not exist with out the other.

The main section of Cruel and Unusual looked exactly like a tradition photo show – ordered, framed prints of 11 named photographers. Cerebral and reliable. Mindful. The mind.

The counterpart was the PPOTR wall – a “mayhemic reflection” of some of the stories and images I encountered during Prison Photography on the Road. It included the photographs and quotes of another 18 photographers.

The PPOTR wall was messy, imperfect, unmediated, and attached to the core of my sprawling interest in prison imagery. It was the best solution Hester and I could think of to reflect our frantic immersion in international, blogging photo-territories. Physical, with tentacles, corporal. The body.

Body and the mind are inseparable. They communication with one another through a central nervous system. Noorderlicht, our host was backbone, nerve centre and sensitivity.

Outside of my home country (and my comfort zone) I clamped onto my host. Noorderlicht gallery connected mind and body; perfection with imperfection; polished ideas with raw, in-process threads; finished photographs with found stories.

The PPOTR wall was the first time I’ve tried to bring my sprawling project to some sort of overview suitable for visual consumption (lecture Powerpoint presentations excepted). As such, I was required to direct the PPOTR installation.

It is at the point of installation, one begins to appreciate the attitudes of the host and its staff.

As a practitioner with little experience in installation, the Noorderlicht installation team of Marco, Ype and Margriet were supportive without qualification, enthused, and willing to make gentle interventions when necessary. Their relaxed professionalism is one reflected through the organization from top to bottom. I worked with Charissa Caron on press liaison, with gallery director Olaf Veenstra on business decisions. Geert printed the work. There was always fresh coffee on hand. There were flowers in the gallery. At the opening they let dogs come in to see the artwork!

Noorderlicht is more than a workplace. It is a home.

It was somewhat of a risk for Noorderlicht to commission two photobloggers to curate. Yes, we have the knowledge and the online networks, but blogging (writing emails, forging prose, editing online galleries) is very different to herding photographers and liaising with gallery staff for a physical show.

I should say that Hester is a much more accomplished gad about phototown with a long CV of collaborations and in the past year has taken on the role of curator at large for the Empty Quarter Gallery, Dubai. Her knowledge and discipline propelled the pre-show nuts-and-bolts organizing. Without her, I’d have been knocked on my arse early in the venture.

There is a reason Noorderlicht took a risk on us though. It is because they do it often. Noorderlicht is probably best known for its international photography festival. The size and reputation of their festival is astounding given the foundation’s modest size. Take a look through the festival archives and see how many big name photographers showed their work at Noorderlicht before they became big names. They are pioneers.

Groningen is in the north of the Netherlands, 3 hours drive from Amsterdam and the rest of the cultural heart of Holland in the west and south (den Haag, Utrecht, Lieden and Rotterdam). Because of this Noorderlicht often gets overlooked or pigeonholed. I think in some cases, folk might be slow to acknowledge Noorderlicht’s accomplishments. We know how London and NYC dominate the cultural psyches of the UK and the U.S., and I think a similar imbalance persists in the Netherlands. If I am in anyway correct – and I wish I were not – then this is everybody’s loss.

The risk paid off.

Cruel and Unusual was extended by a week due to public demand. Visitor numbers have been substantial and the Dutch press went doolally over it. National radio, newspapers, magazine features – the whole shebang.

This does not surprise me. For many reasons, the subject matter is compelling. But I think the show has been a success because there is a dearth of discussion about prisons in Europe. As grand an ambition it may sound, Hester and I hoped the show would be a warning shot across the bows of Europe: DON’T REPEAT AMERICA’S MISTAKES. DON’T MASS INCARCERATE! It would seem people were hungry for Cruel and Unusual because the topic was a challenging breath of fresh air. Much of the work was also being shown in Europe for the first time. As thrilling as photography can be, I think the show was a thrill.

At the opening, were visitors from Amsterdam photo circles. It was huge validation to welcome knowledgeable folk venturing such a distance from their reliable cultural locale. Another indicator of legitimacy.

I am grateful the show was a success. Prior, I didn’t think about it; I didn’t know how to define success with a show. And I don’t know what I’d have done if it had been a flop!

I’m happy for all the beautiful staff at Noorderlicht that it has worked out. Hester and I were treated like family. That’s not an exaggeration – I’ll leave you with the words of Ton Broekhuis, Noorderlicht Foundation Director as written to me in an email following my return to the U.S.

“Pete, you mentioned ‘being welcomed into the Noorderlicht family’. You did not mention leaving the Noorderlicht family, which is reasonable. Everyone who joins the family by free will makes – at the same time – a promise to come back. Family is family. It is forever.”


American Photo: “There’s a wide range of photography blogs on the internet, but how would it be possible to measure their impact on the real world? It’s difficult to see the offline effect of an idea published online. […] We’re interested to see what other ways photography bloggers choose to usher their projects into the real world, and Brook certainly sounds excited. “This is going to sound crazy,” he said, “but I’ve never seen these works any bigger than 600 pixels wide on a screen.” Spoken like a true 21st-century curator.”

Elizabeth Avedon: Noorderlicht Gallery is producing a ‘must-have’ catalog for Cruel and Unusual, designed as a newspaper by Pierre Derks in an edition of 4,000. Along with visuals from the main exhibition, the catalog contains articles, interviews, ephemera and material from photographers Pete Brook encountered during his crowd-funded road-trip through the U.S.” (One and Two and Three)

Daylight Magazine: “What steps are being taken to productively rehabilitate inmates, rather than simply secluding them from society and releasing them once their term is up? The Nooderlicht Photogallery has curated a show from nine women photographers to explore the effect that mass imprisonment has had on our sense of justice and virtue.”

Marc Feustel: “Brook and Keijser write two of the most dynamic and esoteric blogs that you will find on the web. To state the obvious, prisons are not exactly a sexy subject and the fact that they have managed to put this show together is very impressive. Instead of a ‘traditional’ exhibition catalogue, the curators have put together a newspaper in an attempt to reach more readers than an expensive photobook could. The world of photography online can be an exasperating, sprawling mess, but the fact that it can lead to projects such as this one makes it genuinely worthwhile.”

Stan Banos: “If you’re interested in documentary photography and interviews with the top notch photographers who made the work, Cruel and Unusual [newspaper] is very much worth the look.”

Greg Ruffing: “How citizens (aka taxpayers) understand the prison system and life behind bars, and how do they formulate their thoughts and convictions about mass incarceration based on the information they receive (and where that info is filtered through)? Cruel and Unusual gets to the heart of that issue by examining how prisons and prisoners are presented in images, and how those images are created, distributed, and consumed.”

Colin Pantall: “It is testament to how the internet and blogs are having a real impact that is breaking new ground and making new visual discoveries and connections.”

No Caption Needed: “Cruel and Unusual will provide another occasion to consider how the carceral system condemns those within and without, and how photography can reveal and build relationships where before there was only confinement, within and without.”

re-PHOTO: “Regular readers will know that I’ve often mentioned Pete Brook’s Prison Photography blog on these pages. He’s someone who has often raised interesting issues, both photographic and political, and the forthcoming show Cruel and Unusual at Noorderlicht which he is curating together with Hester Keijser looks to continue in that vein.” (One and Two)

Lens Culture
Eastern Art Report
La Lettre De La Photographie
Wayne Bremser
GUP Magazine

Dutch Press
Hamburg Art & Culture blog
Dutch free daily, De Pers ran a double spread of Scott Houston’s Arizona Female Chain Gang work. Dutch and Google translated English.
Noorderlicht has links to the De Pers article as a PDF and also a PDF of the Vrij Nederland feature on Alyse Emdur’s work (Dutch only)

Hester did three interviews for Dutch Radio
Radio Netherlands Worldwide
NOS, Netherlands Public Radio (Dutch only)
VPRO, Netherlands Public Broadcaster (Dutch only)


Hester with the announcement and the backstory, and Hester reflecting on the churn that was newsprint catalogue design and production.

Prison Photography: Announcement, thoughts on the newsprint catalogue,  newspaper distribution.

And finally, a Feature Shoot interview I did with  about how the road-trip and exhibition have shaped the Prison Photography “Project”.