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First Meal: Everything bagel with veggie cream cheese and a medium coffee from Dunkin Donuts. “I was craving a really good bagel,” said Keri Blakinger, 30, who served 21 months in female correctional facilities in NY. Blakinger, a vegetarian, subsisted mostly on canned vegetables and granola bars, which she received in packages from her parents. Since getting out, her diet has not changed much because she grew accustomed to not having to cook for herself. © Julius Motal.

There’s no shortage of projects about meals in the small corner of photographic practice concerned with prisons and human rights. Specifically, the final meals of condemned prisoners have stoked the macabre and outraged intrigue of artists.

Julius Motal‘s photographs of “first meals” are therefore something of a departure and a welcome addition to the visual narratives trying to convey the transitions out of prison and into society. Instead of an end point, Motal suggests a starting point (although the quality of help for reentry is up for question in many jurisdictions). Still, this work is simple and hopeful. Returning citizens cannot make it on their own. They’ll need to carry resolve and hope and see that reflected back from society. Perhaps Motal’s series with its extended captions helps humanise former prisoners?

The startling thing for me is the similarity in the types of food choices made by people about to face execution and people making a more inhibited choice once they’re outside of prison — almost without exception they go for fast food. Do returning citizens opt for fast food because they’re poor, have for the most part been poor, and eaten the cheapest and most accessible food? Or is it more simply a case of reaching out for easy comfort (supposing fast food equates to comfort) in times of relief?

There’s a reflection of class in Motal’s work, which is a good thing. It’s a healthy reminder how the prison industrial complex functions; hoe it brutalises communities of lower economic standing. Very few prisoners are like the middle class, liberal arts college educated Piper Kerman — or the TV show equivalent Piper Chapman — from Orange Is The New Black. Most people going to and leaving prison are poorer than the average American.

Currently, Motal’s series First Meals: This is What Freedom Tastes Like is only six images deep. I hope he’ll extend the survey and continue to ask ex-prisoners about their relationships to food. There’s many different directions in which this work could go not only in terms of interaction with subjects but in terms of public education to tie in with reentry services, food deserts, mother and child nutrition programs, and so on and so forth.

It’s significant that more than one caption refers to the overwhelming choice within — and paralysing nature of — grocery stores for former prisoners who were unaccustomed to variety and decision making power for extended periods. One caption reads:

For Stacy Burnett, the choices at the Burger King in Montrose, PA were overwhelming, so much so that she couldn’t make a decision. “I could feel the energy shift behind me,” Burnett, 39, said of the growing restlessness behind her. She finally told the cashier that she’ll have what the woman ahead of her ordered, which was a whopper, fries, a shake and a soda. For the first six months after her release, going to the supermarket was tremendously difficult. There were simply too many choices, and if she didn’t get anything in the first 10 minutes, she would leave without getting anything.

Last meals are a captivating topic but direct us only to the plight of 3,500ish people on death row in the country. Motals’ work about “first meals” directs us to the tough realities of the millions of people leaving jails and prison every year in America.

 

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