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American photographer Willow Paule has spent half her time, in recent years, in Indonesia. She recounts in PsychoCulturalCinema how she slowly learnt about the past incarcerations of her two friends. Their conversations together led to more questions. Paule writes:

Through my research and conversations with these former prisoners in Indonesia, I discovered that they had faced rampant corruption, extortion, and violence in prison. I found that people were often convicted without solid evidence, that they sometimes possessed only small amounts of narcotics or marijuana but were given long drug distribution sentences, while large time dealers got off with lighter sentences. The person with the fattest wallet got the best treatment.

I learned that mentally ill people often became police targets, and periodically drugs were planted on them in order for police to meet arrest quotas. Once they were locked up, they didn’t necessarily receive adequate care, and they sometimes created turmoil in the cramped cells they shared with the general population. Many people told me disheartening stories about human rights abuses in Indonesian prisons.

My focus is the U.S. prison system, but as I say, dryly and reductively, on my bio page, “problems exist in other countries too.” Paule knows this all too well. She recorded the art that her two friends created as a matter of survival and also their difficult reentry into society. There, as here, jobs are difficult to come by for former prisoners and the stigma of prison lingers long.

The extent to my knowledge on the Indonesian prison system spans the length of Paule’s article. The system sounds dire.

“Prison sentence lengths were decided depending on bribe amounts and prisoners had to pay for a cell or face daily beatings and electrocution in solitary confinement,” writes Paule.

Connecting Paule’s years-old inquiry to today, in the U.S., is Paule’s desire to repeat the methodology and record the stories of returning citizens in America.

There’s no shortage of people in this country with whom Paule could meaningfully connect and weave their history and story over a long period as she did in Indonesia. It takes more than just images though; I encourage Paule and all young photographers to use audio, family archives, collaborative processes and — as Paule did here — a focus on non-photo 2D artworks. Most of all, I encourage young photographers to empower not only individuals impacted by incarceration through the telling of their stories but also to empower small local communities by exhibiting and programming the work with those most closely implicated in the issue.

Simply put, a show at the local community centre is as important as one in the brand name gallery downtown. The former deals in hearts and minds, the latter in sales.

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