“Angola Prison, 2004,” by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick.
It was gratifying to be mentioned in Sabine Heinlein’s recent NYT article Artists Grapple With America’s Prison System which surveyed the ways artists, curators and thinkers are responding to mass incarceration. The cue for the article, I’m guessing, was the two exhibitions currently on show in NYC–Andrea Fraser at The Whitney and Cameron Rowland (covered on PP) at Artists Space.
The paragraph that immediately follows the mention of Prison Obscura reads:
Ben Davis, the author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, praises artists for taking up the topic, he warned: “We should push the question beyond just consciousness-raising. There is this progressive-era style of political art where well-to-do people throw banquets for homeless people and then stand up on the balcony and congratulate themselves. There is an icky history of using the suffering of the people at the bottom as a spectacle.”
Can’t argue with that.
Keeping check of ones own interests and benefits relative to those of prisoners and prisoners’ families is critical. I believe my work has not exploited incarcerated people but I never assume that the assessment of Prison Photography, Prison Obscura or any of my other projects is fixed or final.
With criminal justice reform and prison reform emerging into the mainstream over the past, say, 5 years, I habour a continuous niggling suspicion that my writing–my blogging–has less and less effect. This is down to several factors, most of them having to do with the way we consume content on the Internet today as compared to how we consumed in 2008 when I started Prison Photography. These include, but are not limited to, the dominance of Facebook and it’s pay-to-see algorithms (I’m not on Facebook); the killing of Google Reader which in turn made RSS and the independent sources/blogs RSS aggregates more impractical to access (not to say there aren’t other RSS readers out there, but none are as elegant, or free, as Google Reader); Tumblr and the trend toward infinite scrolls of visual content, not text; and, of course, the fact that on any given day NYT, WaPo, NPR, The Guardian, The Marshall Project, The Intercept, VICE, CJR and countless other international news outlets are covering the U.S. prison industrial complex–against a backdrop of such comprehensive coverage, Prison Photography barely registers.
Some days, it feels like I’m scrapping just to stay visible. That’s an icky place to be. It’s a dangerous place too; I think it’s a place where motives and energies can be tainted and focus on the issues can diminish. For that reason, practitioners–myself included–must be subject to continuous criticism and critique.
If you ever see me standing on the balcony and congratulating myself, call me out. Shoot me down.