Photo: Marina Paulenka, from the series The Other Home
Photo criticism/journalism is a curious thing. I read Jacob Brookman’s BJP piece The Anatomy of Absence: Inside Croatia’s Only Prison for Women about Marina Paulenka‘s photographs at Požega Penitentiary. I was left agog. The language is another level of all sorts:
The Other Home is a patchwork of subtle symbolism: a synecdoche of nothingness. There is no home, only absence from a home. A non-existence preserved in the lies that prisoners tell to hide their state-issued confinement. An experience denied – time that can only be understood through the inverted kaleidoscope of its floccinaucinihilipilification.
The convicts themselves are missing from the photos. We are therefore invited to examine the inmates’ status in absentia, raising questions of guilt, freedom, motherhood, femininity and the topography of the prison itself.
“Questions of guilt, freedom, motherhood, femininity and the topography of the prison.” What questions? I’m not saying that questions aren’t there, but help me, the reader, get to them. What’s at stake here? Inexact language takes us away from understanding the mechanisms and powers at play at Požega.
Despite the byzantine descriptions, I was eager to click through to learn more about Paulenka’s work. I’m glad I did. The wide edit of 58 images on Paulenka’s website is a thrilling, still and moody view of Požega Penitentiary. BJP was right to feature the work. It’s no surprise that Brookman was engaged by the images.
(Side-note: I’m surprised by the limited BJP image edit for the piece. The small edit, for me, seems to limit the audience’s capacity to understand Paulenka’s work.)
I’m grateful to Brookman for explaining that Paulenka made the images over 18-months and that the reason the photographs do not feature women is because the prison administration would not allow Paulenka to make portraits, even anonymizing portraits.
The piece closes with:
The rooms, devoid of living beings, are inhabited by their lives; simple, methodical, punitive. The Other Home is a quiet paean to suppressed femininity existing in a distant valley. It is an expression of vacancy: an anatomy of absence.
A fancy way of saying photos of stuff that’s not there.
I guess here’s the key: Paulenka’s photographs summon the atmosphere of the prison in a way Brookman’s words do not. I don’t like to throw snark at fellow writers because I’ve written plenty of flowery stuff in the past (It’s all online, forever) and this isn’t about Brookman or this review specifically. This is just an opportunity to say this:
Make words count. If words aren’t needed, don’t conjure them.
Sometimes, when dealing with photos, it’s best just to get the words out of the way.
See Marina Paulenka’s work here.