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I wanted to share with you an essay I wrote for the publication that accompanied Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility a project by artist collective ERNEST at c3:initiative, in Portland, Oregon (September 2015).
The essay, titled Never Neutral, considers the drawings of one-time-California-prisoner Ernest Jerome DeFrance. I wander and wonder one way and then the other. For all their looseness, DeFrance’s drawing might be the tightest and most urgent description of solitary confinement, we have. They come from down in the hole.
Pen marks rattle around on the page like people do when they are put in boxes.
I ventured away from photography here. Got a bit speculative. Have a read. See what you think. See what you see.
Power breeds more power. The unerringly-certain power belonging to, say, nation states, financial posses, military strategists and total institutions, rides roughshod over opposition. The assault upon bodies, ideas and ecology inherent to the process of accumulating power is not always a conscious assault. As a power grows, opponents shrink, relatively. Harder to acknowledge, and even see, opponents that recede from power’s view are easier to crush.
Prisons have crushed their fair share. For the past four decades, the United States’ prison systems have grown exponentially. They have, at times, and in some places, grown unchecked. Since 1975, the number of prisoners has increased five-fold (and the number of women prisoners increased eight-fold). The U.S. spends $80 billion annually to warehouse 2.3 million citizens. In any given year 13 million individuals are cycled through one jail or prison or another. The prison industrial complex has come to dwarf education budgets. It has, in California, battered teachers unions. It removed non-custodial sentencing policy from the table for many a long year. It disavows notions of treatment, restoration or forgiveness. The prisons industrial complex laid to waste many of the key social, moral, political, environmental and psychological underpinnings of community.
In the face of such tumorous growth, common-sense opposition has been edged out and swallowed up. Sporadically, however, narratives that counter the fear, bullying and rhetoric of the prison industrial complex and its beneficiaries capture attention — narratives from advocacy, journalism, personal correspondence, legal briefs, FOI requests, jailhouse law, contraband and whistleblower testimonies. Art, too, has consistently spoken—or sketched—truth to power. Art is part of the resistance.
Prisoner-made art is, mostly, made for loved ones beyond the walls; prison art rarely gets seen by anyone beyond its intended recipient.
Given the sheer volume of jailhouse artworks made every day, it may seem strange to isolate, for this essay, a single prisoner’s sketches for critique. There is, however, something profound in the works of Ernest Jerome DeFrance that set them apart. Prison-art (pencil portraiture, greeting cards, DIY-calligraphy, envelope doodles) tends to reveal the circumstances of its production; that is, it reveals the facts and parameters of the prison system (limited resources, distant recipients, censor-safe subject matter).
A lot of prison part is personal and figurative, but DeFrance’s work is abstract, loose and reveals not only the circumstances of production but the brutalizing effects of those circumstances. For example, a run-of-the-mill prisoner-drawn portrait of a child — and the hope it may embody — is made in spite of the system, and a child’s innocence is something outside and beyond any corrupted system. Removing sentiment from the equation, a prisoners’ card for her child is an established, safe, non-controversial, and relatively unpoliced gesture. By contrast, DeFrance’s drawings operate outside of the routine prison art economy; they are untethered, non-figurative and non-occasional statements that are difficult to anchor and understand.
DeFrance’s loops and swirls are the feedback of a maddening prison system.
DeFrance made these images while incarcerated in the California prison system. During that time he spent extended periods of time in solitary confinement. He submitted these works to Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights (UC Berkeley, Fall 2014) an exhibition produced by Architects, Designer and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) an anti-death penalty group that also argues against prolonged solitary confinement.
Architect Raphael Sperry, founder of ADSPR, led a highly visible media campaign for the adoption of language in the American Institute of Architects code of ethics prohibiting the design of spaces that physically and psychologically torture — namely, execution chambers and solitary confinement cells. Why? Because extreme isolation can lead to permanent psychological impairment comparable to that of traumatic brain injury. 
In an attempt to reconnect the most isolated American citizens with the outside world and in order to get some reliable information about solitary confinement, the call for entries for Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights requested drawings of solitary cells by prisoners in solitary cells. Of the 14 men who submitted work, most stuck to the brief and drew plans or annotated elevations. DeFrance sent dozens of frantic nest-like lattices.
I defy anyone to say that DeFrance’s works don’t encapsulate the same terror as the to-scale, measured, line-drawn renderings by fellow exhibitors. It is not even clear if DeFrance had completed these works. What is complete? What is a start and what is an end … to a line, to a thought, to a stint in a box when the lights are always on, the colors are always the same, and sensory deprivation perverts time, taking you outside of yourself?
Solitary confinement “undermines your ability to register and regulate emotion,” says Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The appropriateness of what you’re thinking and feeling is difficult to index, because we’re so dependent on contact with others for that feedback. And for some people, it becomes a struggle to maintain sanity.”  Chronic apathy, depression, depression, irrational anger, total withdrawal and despair are common symptoms resulting from long-term isolation. 
All we know is that DeFrance considered these works finished enough to mail out.
Like a Rorschach Test for the horror-inclined, DeFrance’s works trigger all sorts of associations — Munch’s The Scream, Mondrian’s trees, Maurice Sendak’s darker side, Pierre Soulages‘ everyday side and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away character No Face. I can go on. There are knuckles, clenched fists, scarecrows and magic carpets. I see bulging eyes. I see that optical illusion of the old witch’s nose. Or is the neckline of a young woman in necklace and furs?
Reading into DeFrance’s art with ones own visual memory is, admittedly, an exercise fraught with complications. Scanning work for something familiar is to lurch toward inner-biases. How does one land, or explain, connection with this work?
DeFrance’s art defies easy definition. These are not the crying clowns, the soaring eagles, the scantily-clad women or the Harley Davidson cliches common of prison art. These are … well … you decide. Faces, collars, cliffs, ropes, cliff faces, tourniquets, capes and caps? Is that a helmet? Of a riot cop? Of a cell-extraction specialist? Of the law and that which metes out judgement, retribution, pain and accountability? Or is it a divine shroud? Or is it a torture hood? 
On any given day in the United States, 80,000 people are in solitary. In California, solitary is a 22½-hour lockdown in a 6-by-9-foot cell with a steel door and no windows. Juan E. Méndez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, told the UN General Assembly in June 2011 that solitary confinement is torture and assaults the mental health of prisoners. “It is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.” Mendez recommends stays of no more than 15-days in isolation. Preceding this, in 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, a bipartisan national task force, recommended abolishing long-term isolation reporting that stints longer than 10-days offered no benefits and instead caused substantial harm to prisoners, staff and the general public.  Some Americans have been in solitary for 15, 20, 25 years or more.
If a drawing “is simply a line going for a walk” like Paul Klee said then DeFrance’s drawings pace and circle the paper as he would his 54 square feet. One’s eyesight deteriorates rapidly in solitary. Denied any variation in depth-of-field, sharpness and acuity are lost. In a state of looseness and unknowing, gray walls throb and the mind conjures its own forms. Amorphous beings pulse within DeFrance’s work. Solid shape abandons us. Are we looking at shadows of ghosts? Scale suffers too. These forms are as large as you are brave enough to imagine.
Inasmuch as these images are indicative of solitary confinement experience, they are indicative of all prisons in the United States. “Every terrorist regime in the world uses isolation to break people’s spirits.” said bell hooks in 2002. hooks was talking about social exclusion but the phrase applies as easily to physical confinement. Indeed, with the exception of total-surveillance enclaves (where control needn’t be material) social exclusion and extreme incarceration tend go go hand-in-hand anyway. DeFrance’s works are a commentary, from within, of the philosophy and architectures we’ve perfected as an ever-more-punitive society. No other nation in the world uses solitary to the degree the United Sates does, and no other civilization in the history of man has locked up as greater proportion of its citizens. 
“Solitary confinement is a logical result of mass incarceration,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, psychologist and esteemed solitary specialist.  The demand for cells to house those handed harsher, longer sentences resulted in a huge prison boom since 1975. Still, these facilities could not adequately accommodate the vast number of people being locked up. Overcrowding gripped all states and any mandates to rehabilitate and provide activities for prisoners were all but abandoned. Haney reasons that extreme isolation resulted directly from prisons attempting to maintain power. He says, “Faced with this influx of prisoners, and lacking the rewards they once had to manage and control prisoner behavior, turned to the use of punishment. One big punishment is the threat of long-term solitary confinement.” 
Kalief Browder’s suicide in June 2015 brought national attention back to the issue of solitary confinement. He was kept in Rikers Island for 3 years without charge for an alleged theft of a backpack. Kalief didn’t kill himself, a broken New York courts and jail system did.  Ever since the California Prison Hunger Strikes, beginning in 2011, solitary had been the main topic on which to hang debate about mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. The unforgiving logic of solitary confinement policies is the same as that which has led to thousands of in-custody deaths, so-called “voluntary suicide” and officer-involved killings.
The Black Lives Matter movement has successfully tied over-zealous community policing, to stop-and-frisk, to restraint techniques, to custody conditions, to a bail system that abuses the poor, to extended and unconstitutional pretrial detention, and to solitary confinement in its devastating critique of a structurally racist nexus of law enforcement.
#SayHerName. Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas; Jonathan Saunders in Mississippi; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Charly Leundeu Keunang in Los Angeles; Sgt. James Brown in an El Paso jail; James M. Boyd in the hills of Albuquerque; John Crawford III in a WalMart in Ohio; Walter Scott in North Charleston; Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and thousands of more people over the past 12 months alone killed by law enforcement.
So corrupted and violent is the prison system that one wonders if it can be fixed at all or whether it should be completely disassembled. Neil Barksy, chairman and founder of The Marshall Project, recently argued for the total closure of Rikers Island . I am often asked if I think there exists people who deserve to be locked up and should be locked up. There’s a presumption in the question that the prison is a neutral factor. And there is a presumption, too, that people don’t change. But a prison is never neutral. In fact, most of the time prisons are very negative factors int he equation. Prisons damage people severely. Mass incarceration has made us less safe, not more safe. At what point and in what places can we confidently state that a prisoner’s violence (or the threat of violence that is attached upon them) is his own?
Conversely, at what point must we accept that the prison itself has caused anti-sociability and incorrigible behavior? Why are we surprised at the notion that a system built on threat and violence creates prisoners who incorporate threat and violence into their survival? Prisons create, often, people who fit better in prison than in free society — most end up institutionalized and docile and a few violent and unpredictable. Ultimately, no one can pass judgement on a prisoner because when hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are serving extremely long sentences or Life Without Possibility Of Parole, they exist in a system that molds them to our worst assumptions.
How far are we willing to go to protect ourselves against our worst fears and demons of our own creation? The first of many things I saw when viewing DeFrance’s was an echo of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. According to Roman myth, Saturn was told he his son would overthrow him. To prevent this, Saturn ate his children moments after each was born. His sixth son, Jupiter, was shuttled to safety on the island of Crete by Saturn’s wife Ops. Unwilling to surrender his absolute power, Saturn lost his mind. Goya is one of many artists to depict the scene, but none did it with such gross frenzy.
Goya had watched the Spanish monarchy destroy the country through arrogance. In his despondent old age, Goya reflected upon the darker aspects of society and human condition, and he played with notions surrounding power and the way a power treats it’s own charges. The prison industrial complex devours humans. It relies on bodies. Private prison companies forecast profits based upon toughening legislation to fill their facilities. Our laws have looked to warehousing instead of healing, and our society has travelled too far, for too long, into territories of massive social inequality. Art is part of the resistance and sometimes exposes a system that is programmed to deny witness; sometimes art can give those outside prisons a glimpse of the torture inside.
To see Ernest Jerome DeFrance’s art is to look into the belly of the beast.
 Atul Gawande, ‘Hellhole‘, New Yorker, March 30, 2009.
 Craig Haney, ‘Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement‘, Crime & Delinquency 49 (2003). ps. 124–156.
 Stuart Grassian, ‘The Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement‘, Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 22 (2006). p.325.
 The four men in charge of reconstructing Abu Ghraib for US military use were hired shills who had overseen disfunctional and scandal-ridden departments of correction the U.S. in the decades prior to 2003. Abu Ghraib was not an abnormal situation; it was a reliable facsimile of the abusive systems routinely in operation in the homeland. They four men were Lane McCotter, former warden of the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, former cabinet secretary for the New Mexico DOC, John Armstrong, former director of the Connecticut DOC. Terrry Stewart, former director of the Arizona DOC and his top deputy Chuck Ryan. View more at Democracy Now!
 Confronting Confinement [PDF] Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons:
 For many reasons, the widespread use of isolation in American prisons is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past 20 years. Some prisoners have been kept down in the hole for decades. The controversial use of long-term solitary confinement is one of the most pressing issues of the American prison system currently in public debate. Much of the debate results from the attention drawn to California—and to the SHU at Pelican Bay in particular—by the California Prisoner Hunger Strike.
 Terry Kupers, in the keynote address at the Strategic Convening on Solitary Confinement and Human Rights, sponsored by the Midwest Coalition on Human Rights, November 9, 2012, Chicago.
 Brandon Keim, ‘Solitary Confinement: The Invisible Torture‘, Wired.com
 Raj Jayadev, founder of Silicon Valley Debug and pioneer of Participatory Defense makes this argument very well.
 Neil Barksy, ‘Shut Down Rikers Island‘, New York Times, July 15, 2015.
At the back-end of 2011, I paid a visit to Nigel Poor and Doug Dertinger at the Design and Photography Department at Sacramento State University where they both teach. We talked about a history of photography course that Nigel and Doug co-taught at San Quentin Prison as part of the Prison University Project. At the time, there was no other college-level photo-history course other class like this in the United States. I have no reason to believe that that has changed (although I’d happily be proved wrong — get in touch!) We cover curriculum, student engagement, logistics, and the rewards of teaching in a prison environment.
Toward the end of the conversation we move on to discuss an essay by incarcerated student Michael Nelson. It was a comparative analysis between a Misrach photo and a Sugimoto photo. The highly respected TBW Books recently released Assignment No.2 which is a reissue of Michael’s essay. Packaged in a standard folder and printed on lined yellow office paper, Assignment #2 caught the photobook world a little off guard. Reviewers that dared to take it on admitted to being flummoxed a little. And then won over.
Back in 2011, TBW’s interest hadn’t yet been registered and Poor was still in production of the audio of Michael reading the work for public presentation. TBW Books publisher Paul Schiek has talked about the production of Assignment No.2, but Nigel Poor less so. This is the back-story to one of the most unique photo books of recent years — a book that combines fine art and fine design with an earnest recognition of a social justice need.
Scroll down for the Q&A.
Q & A
PP: How did you come to teach at San Quentin?
Nigel Poor (NP): I was always interested in teaching in a prison, and I just really never had the time to do it. While I was on a sabbatical [in 2011] I got an email from the Prison University Project saying they were looking for someone to teach art appreciation. I thought it would be a perfect time to teach there and form a class around the history of photography. I really wanted to do something with Doug so we got together to write this class.
PP: What do you look at?
NP: The history of contemporary photography — focusing on the 1970’s to the present. The course is 15 weeks like a regular semester. We met once a week for three hours. We started with early photographers — August Sander, Walker Evans and Robert Frank just to put some context and talk about how these photographers are often quoted and we move forward and show people like Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, Nick Nixon, Wendy Ewald.
Doug Dertinger (DD): Nigel tended to teach about the photographs that dealt with people, portraits, and social issues. My photographs tended to be the ones that dealt with land use and then also media. We struck a nice balance.
DD: The first two classes were strictly on aesthetic language, form, how to experience images, how to talk about them. The first assignment asked them to describe a photograph that doesn’t exist, that they wished they had that would describe a significant moment in their life. In that way they would create a little story for us and we would get to know something about them but they’d also have to use all the language about how you talk about a photograph. It was a really wonderful way to get them to think about making themselves part of the story of the photograph. Even if a photograph isn’t about you, you can bring your experience to it. It’s not solipsism; it is a way of entering photography. The exercise allowed them to take emotional chances with photographs.
In later classes, in 2012, Poor printed out famous photographs on card stock and asked her students to annotate directly upon the images. Click the William Eggleston analysed by Marvin B (top) to see a larger version of it. Kevin Tindall analysed Lee Friedlanders’ Canton, Ohio 1980 (middle), and Ruben Ramirez looked at David Hilliard’s tripychs (bottom).
PP: Were there any issues with your syllabus? Did you have to adapt it? Omit anything? Compared say to here at Sacramento State?
NP: I always tell my students, wherever we are, that it is an NC-17 rating. I naively thought I could just show the same images in San Quentin [as at Sac State] but when we started going through the process we were told that we couldn’t show any images that had to do with drugs, violence, sex, nudity, and children. Which is about 95% of photography!
At that point, I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to work but Jody Lewen [Director of the Prison University Project] is an incredible advocate and she didn’t want to presume censorship — Jody wanted the burden of explaation as to why we couldn’t show a particular image to be on the officials of the California Department of Corrections. She set up a meeting with the with Scott Kernan, the [then] Under-Secretary of the California Department of Corrections, and the [then] warden of San Quentin Prison, Michael Martell.
Kernan and Martell wanted me to show all the images that I was using for the class. I basically give them a mini-course in photography from 1970 to the present. We talked for close to two hours. I ended up getting permission to show everything except for four images.
PP: Not the worst case of censorship then?
NP: No. It was kind of a triumph. And, it must be said, without their help — especially Scott Kernan — I don’t think we would have gotten the class in.
PP: Can you describe the philosophy for the course?
NP: The central idea is to expose students to photography but really ask them to think about it quickly in an accessible and emotional way. Nor Doug or I teach from a theoretical or academic point of view. We argue that the images exist and they come to life because of the conversations we have around them. Students learn basic things about framing, form, content, but I really want them to explore all the areas of the photograph.
At the beginning, I describe the photograph as something akin to a crime scene; we are detectives trying to piece all the visual clues together to uncover subtext — perhaps, even secrets of the images that maybe the photographer isn’t even aware of.
In 2012, Poor was shown an archive of 4×5 negatives of photographs made by the prison administration in the 70s and 80s. The amount of information attached to the images is minimal. Poor broke the archive into 12 loose categories. One from the ‘Violence & Investigations’ category (top) and one from the ‘Ineffable’ category (bottom).
PP: Let’s come back to that. Because I want to bring Doug in here. Doug, what did you think when Nigel asked you to co-teach this program inside San Quentin Prison?
DD: I thought great. My parents are doctors and spent the last five years of their careers teaching at Federal Prison System. I taught in prison back in 1993 — one summer just general education stuff. So, when Nigel said that she was going to do this, well, I knew I wanted to partner with Nigel and thought it would be fun, in a way, to see what the what’s going on inside San Quentin.
PP: How do these students fair compared to your students in *free* society?
NP: They really understand the power of education and the importance of being present. I never had a student fall asleep at San Quentin or look at me with that blank expression! They were so hungry, open to conversation. It makes you worry about finding that same intensity outside of the prison setting.
DD: The men they already knew what they were about in a sense and so they came to the class with questions about photography and they understood that photography could reveal the world to them in ways that they were hungry for. A lot of students that I’ve had outside are still trying to figure out what they’re about and they haven’t yet come to their own necessity.
And, some of the men [in San Quentin] somehow understood that learning to talk about images, learning to see the world in a more complex way, could actually change them. I wish there was a way that didn’t sound trite to explain it but I could see transformations in them from the conversations that we had. Every Sunday when I left teaching there I would drive home in silence just contemplating the conversations that we had and how I felt I was becoming a better person for spending time with them. I would like to humbly think that they were too. It was a real back and forth.
Was it Wordsworth that said the imagination is the untraveled traveler? It seemed like when we went to class we all went on these journeys that were very significant for all of us. They were ready to travel.
In Nigel’s final class, she asked her students to annotate on print outs of photos from the newly discovered prison archive, in a manner similar to that they had with famous photographs from the art historical canon. Above are two examples.
PP: Earlier you mentioned Sally Mann. I presume a photographer that the authorities think is controversial, a photographer that wider society considers controversial and divides opinion. How did the discussion about Sally Mann’s work pan out?
NP: Some of them definitely had questions about the intent: Why would the mother want to photograph her three children romping around naked on their beautiful farm? But what I wanted to talk about how those images are highly staged and stylized. They’re not documentary images of how her children grew up. They are images about maybe desire about childhood, maybe the photographer inserting herself very clearly into these images. What is Sally Mann saying about the complexities of childhood or how children do have sexual feelings and act out in various ways? The images are about creating a tableau in a sense. It isn’t just about this mother who may have made images that made her children uncomfortable; it’s about creating stages to talk about emotional states of being.
PP: Well, I would think that many of the students are interested in notions of fact, truth, whether you can trust an image. Apart from the body, ones word is pretty much all you have when you’re incarcerated.
NP: We had a discussion very early on about the image always being a fabrication. It’s one person’s opinion putting a frame around the world and we always have to keep that in mind whether it’s documentary work or artist’s work. A lot of them got upset about that because I think they wanted to trust that something was reliable and truthful.
NP: And that may reflect a little bit on what happens to them, as people give evidence, or they want to assert their innocence, or not necessarily their innocence but how something unfolded in their life — this idea that everything is flexible and fluid was a little bit unnerving at times. They couldn’t look at the picture and think that’s exactly what the photographer meant and a few of them got prickly about it. It would come up off-and-on, you know. Can we use the word truth in reality when we’re talking about images and then by extension can you use those words when you’re talking about your own experience?
DD: That was a continuing topic throughout the whole semester. It was interesting too that they I don’t know how to describe it but they knew when they looked at a picture that there were all these elements in there. They explained it to us once: They get one picture from home once every 6 months, they pour over every detail of it and the desire is to create a narrative that they can fully believe and fully immerse themselves in. It was hard for them to understand that at first, at least, that there could be five different opinions about what a photograph was and each one kind of had equal weight.
Detail of Assignment No.2. Courtesy TBW Books.
NP: We don’t have a truth to give [the prisoners]. We’re going to give them our experience and talk about how we see the pictures but we’re going to learn something from them by the way they interpret images. I would see a photograph in a different light, often, after I heard what they had to say about it. I was the teacher in the classroom but it was very much about the power of group conversation. You have to outline what you want to discuss but you never quite know where the conversation’s going to go and I think that gave them a sense of power.
DD: I wonder if it was us not being, in a sense, “guards of meaning” that allowed them to say, ‘Oh, Nigel and Doug can be trusted to be privy to what we think, and they’re going to let us say things, and they’re going to correct themselves in relation to what we’re saying. We can participate, we have equal voice.’
PP: What do your students have to contribute to society?
NP: Before you have an experience in prison as a teacher or someone who’s going in as a civilian volunteer, prisoners are a group of invisible people. Even though I think I’m a thoughtful person, I had assumptions from what I read in the paper, in movies, in news.
PP: What you saw in photographs?
NP: Yeah! That these are going to be scary men, that if you turn your back are going to hurt you, that they’re animals they need to be separated from us and that they’re one-dimensional.
PP: Not so?
NP: When you go in there and you start talking and you see that these are complex, fascinating, thoughtful people; they’re citizens. They are part of our society. Yes, some of them have done terrible things but we have to think about reform and education, and the huge issues of, yes, redemption and forgiveness. How do we deal with those things? I think the only way you can thoughtfully talk about rehabilitation and forgiveness and make change is if you have a personal experience in there — you’re going to change your mind.
Details of Assignment No.2. Courtesy TBW Books.
NP: We need to find ways to use what’s in there to contribute to our society — to tap their experiences and thoughts. I became a better person by going in there and spending time. I learnt what it means to be human.
PP: That is similar to the feedback that I’ve got from other educators who’ve worked in prisons. Do you feel you are a conduit to the outside world. Do you have an added responsibility to share these stories, to share these men and their experiences with the wider public?
NP: I’m a pretty shy person and sometimes it’s difficult for me to talk at parties or whatever. But, now, I call myself the San Quentin bore. All I want to do is talk to people about this amazing experience, what these men are like. I feel very strongly about it, it’s not about me; it’s about this world that’s veiled and it’s about these men that are made invisible.
PP: You are not only a teacher, you are now an advocate. I hear you’re about to give a student the opportunity to “present” his work to the public?
NP: One of the assignments we had for the students was to give them two images from by two different artists and to ask them to analyse them. The only things the student knew about the works were the artists’ names, the dates, and the titles.
Richard Misrach. Drive-In Theatre, Las Vegas (1987), from the series American History Lessons.
Hiroshi Sugimoto. La Paloma, Encinitas (1993), from the series Theaters.
NP: While Michael was doing the assignment he was put in the hole, isolation, segregation for four weeks. He wrote an amazing paper talking about those two images. So beautiful that I wanted to get it to Richard Misrach which I was able to do and Richard was blown away by the piece.
Richard had been invited to be part of an event in San Francisco called Pop-Up Magazine which invites 20 to 30 different artists, once a year, to tell six minute stories. Richard’s idea was to read the paper that Michael wrote which was incredible. BUT! Then we started talking about it more, the organizer of Pop-Up decided he wanted Michael to read the paper. So, I went into San Quentin and recorded him reading his beautiful paper.
NP: It will be edited together. Richard will introduce it, show the two photographs and then play the recording of the student reading. It’s thrilling that this man who’s been in prison for more than half of his life is going to have the chance to be heard by 2,500 people.
PP: Nigel, Doug, Thanks so much.
NP/DD: Thank you.
ASSIGNMENT NO.2 (2014)
In an edition run of 1000, Assignment No. 2 will give many more people the opportunity to experience Michael’s words.
By Michael Nelson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Richard Misrach.
12 x 9.5″ closed / 12 x 30″ open.
2 full color plates.
All proceeds go to the Prison University Project.
Photo: Meghann Riepenhoff
I’m one of five jurors for this years annual juried show at SF Camerawork. Y’all should enter. Here’s the blurb …
CALL FOR ENTRIES: HEAT
HEAT registers the volatility and restlessness that comes with long hot summers: violent crime rates increase, leases expire and people seek new homes, global weather changes signal an alarm, and warm summer days bring adults and children alike into the streets, parks, and beaches.
SF Camerawork invites artists to submit work that responds to HEAT: the social, political, and climatic conditions of rapidly changing environments. Following the lead of social and political advocates around the world, SF Camerawork asks artists working at all levels in photography to participate.
Art is politics. Particularly in the realistic forms of photography and filmmaking, what gets assigned, shown or sold reflects political considerations. […] Politics is in the air. All you need to do to get the message is breathe. – Danny Lyon.
Photo: David Butow
Deadline: Monday, June 15, 2015, 5pm PST.
Notification: Finalists will be contacted on July 1st.
Exhibition Dates: July 23 – August 22, 2015.
Opening Reception: Thursday, July 23, 6-8pm.
Application Fee: $50 application fee for up to 15 images.
ENTER NOW ON LENSCULTURE AND CREATE AN ACCOUNT TO UPLOAD YOUR APPLICATION
EXHIBITION AT SF CAMERAWORK: 2-5 finalists will have a 4-week exhibition at SF Camerawork.
LIVE ONLINE REVIEW SESSION: Finalists will receive a one-on-one review with a juror through this innovative platform hosted by LensCulture.
20 JUROR SELECTIONS FEATURED: 20 juror selections will be exhibited on interactive screens at SF Camerawork as part of the exhibition.
FEATURE ARTICLE ON LENSCULTURE: Finalists will be featured in an article on LensCulture.
ONE YEAR MEMBERSHIP: All entrants will receive a one-year membership to SF Camerawork.
HEAT 2015 JURY
Pete Brook, Writer and Curator, Founder: Prison Photography
Jim Casper, Editor and Publisher, LensCulture
Seth Curcio, Associate Director, Pier 24 Photography
Janet Delaney, Artist and Educator
Heather Snider, Executive Director, SF Camerawork
Please email info@sfcamerawork with “Call for Entries” in the subject line.
Founded in 1974, SF Camerawork‘s mission is to encourage and support emerging artists to explore new directions and ideas in the photographic arts. Through exhibitions, publications, and educational programs, we strive to create an engaging platform for artistic exploration as well as community involvement and inquiry.
SF Camerawork is a membership-based organization.
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Photo: McNair Evans
HERE’S LOOKIN’ AT YOU
On March 1st, I was a panelist for the BagNewsNotes Salon The Lens in the Mirror: How Surveillance is Pictured in the Media and Public Culture.
In coordination with the Open Society Watching You, Watching Me exhibition, this online panel wanted to reflect not only upon surveillance in our society but how it is pictured and if those depictions meet the realities of networked viewing that are at constant play behind our walls,, systems, nodes and screens.
I felt like an amateur in the room with other esteemed panelists lining up thus – Simone Browne, Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, UT Austin; Cara Finnegan (moderator) writer, photography historian, Associate Professor of Communication, University of Illinois; Rachel Hall, Associate Professor, Communication Studies at Louisiana State University; Marvin Heiferman, writer and curator; Hamid Khan, co-ordinator, Stop LAPD Spying Coalition; and Simon Menner, artist, and member of OSF surveillance exhibition.
Over two hours discussion, we discuss 10 images in turn. They flash up as we deconstruct their meanings, but it might be helpful to consult the gallery first, too.
Over the coming weeks, BagNews will be adding highlight clips for easier to digest morsels that get to the meat of our conversation.
“Surveillance technology permeates the social landscape,” says BagNews. “Tiny cameras monitor traffic, parking lots, cash registers and every corner of federal buildings. Through personal devices and social media, citizens also monitor one other.” In the highlight clip (above), moderator Cara Finnegan and panelists Simon Menner, Simone Browne, Hamid Khan, Rachel Hall and Pete Brook discuss generic imagery and the use of stock photography to represent this reality of daily life
The BagNewsSalon is an on-line, real-time discussion between photojournalists, visual academics and other visual or subject experts. Each salon examines a set of images relevant to the visual stories of the day often focusing on how the media and social media has framed the event. The photo edit is the key element and driver of each Salon discussion and great care is taken to create a group of photos that captures the depth and breadth of media representation.
Bearing Witness is a one-day symposium hosted by SFMOMA assessing the ways in which photography matters now more than ever. Loosely, the theme is connections. I will be presenting and I’m toying with some ideas surrounding the emergent trend in video visitation. Maybe. Possibly, I’ll retread safe ground and present the ideas that informed the recent Prison Obscura exhibition.
I’m on stage in the morning, I have been told. Bearing Witness is for one day only – Sunday 16th March. Speakers include David Guttenfelder, chief photographer in Asia for the Associated Press; Susan Meiselas, photographer, Magnum Photos; Margaret Olin, senior research scholar, Yale University; Doug Rickard, artist and founder of AMERICANSUBURBX; Kathy Ryan, director of photography, The New York Times Magazine; and Zoe Strauss, artist, Magnum Photos.
Organisers Erin O’Toole, SFMOMA associate curator of photography and Dominic Willsdon, SFMOMA Curator of Education and Public Programs, have posed these questions for the symposium:
Given the power and pervasiveness of photography in both art and everyday life, what is the significance of the rapid and fundamental changes that the field is undergoing? How have social media, digital cameras, and amateur photojournalism altered the way photographs capture the everyday, define current events, and steer social and political movements? How have photographers responded to these shifting conditions, as well as to the new ways in which images are understood, shared, and consumed? How have our expectations of photography changed?
Bearing Witness is preceded on March 14 and 15 by Visual Activism, a two-day symposium that explores relationships between visual culture and activist practices. Zanele Muholi is presenting at that, so not to be missed either.
DATE + TIME + LOCATION
10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Sunday, March 16, 2014
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street San Francisco, CA 94103
Admission for both events is free, but it’s wise to register. The 500 spots for Bearing Witness have gone, but that’s always the case with over-zealous free-to-register-symposium-photo-enthusiasts isn’t it? Sign up for the waitlist and you’ll probably get in. I hope.
Image source: Toledo Blade
It is with giddy, air-punching pride and mammoth-sized gratitude for those that helped me along the way that I announce the imminent opening of Prison Obscura.
This exhibition is my first solo-curating gig and reflects my thinking right now about images of and from American prisons. Prison Obscura includes works, approaches and genres that — after 5-years of looking at prison photographs — I consider most informative, responsible, challenging and useful.
Prison Obscura is on show at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery from January 24 through March 7. The CantorFitz built a remarkable Prison Obscura website to accompany the exhibition, at which you can find a lengthy 5,000-word essay as to why I have shied away from traditional documentary work and focused instead on surveillance, code, vernacular snaps, prisoner-made photographs and rarely-seen evidentiary images.
I posit that certain images can more accurately speak to political realities in America’s prison industrial complex. I also celebrate photographs that were made through processes of collaboration with prisoners and with intention to socially engage the subjects and educate audiences. I want you to wonder why you — a tax-paying, prison-funding citizen — rarely gets the chance to see inside prisons, and I want us to think about what roles existing pictures serve for those who live and work within the system.
Scroll down to learn more about the Prison Obscura artists.
Photographer Unknown. Clinical contact holding cage, Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU), C-Yard, Building 12, Mule Creek State Prison, California. August 1st, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
Photographer Unknown. Group holding cages, C-Yard, Building 13, Administrative Segregation Unit, Mule Creek State Prison, August 1st, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
Suicide watch cell, Building 6A, Facility D, Wasco State Prison, California (August 1st, 2008). This photograph document was submitted as evidence in the Brown vs. Plata class action lawsuit (Supreme Court of the United States, May 2011). Photo: Anonymous, courtesy of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP.
Photographer Unknown. Reception Center Visiting / Clinician Office Space, North Kern State Prison, July, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
PRISON OBSCURA ARTISTS
Alyse Emdur’s collected letters and prison visiting room portraits as well as Robert Gumpert’s recorded audio stories from within the San Francisco jail system provide an opportunity to see, read, and listen to subjects in the contexts of their incarceration.
Juvenile and adult prisoners in different workshops led by Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist, and Kristen S. Wilkins perform for the camera, reflect on their past, describe their memories, and self-represent through photographs.
Prison Obscura will also feature work made in partnership with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Men from Graterford Prison who are affiliated with both its own Restorative Justice Program and Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Group are collaborating to create a mural for the exhibition.
The exhibit moves between these intimate portrayals of life within the prison system to more expansive views of legal and spatial surveillance in works like Josh Begley’s manipulated Google Maps’ API code and Paul Rucker’s animated videos, which offer a “celestial” view of the growth of the prison system.
Prison Obscura builds the case that Americans must come face to face with these images to grasp the proliferation of the U.S. prison system and to connect with those it confines.
Scroll down for media, details and events.
Mark Strandquist. Pocahontas State Park, Picture of the Dam. One Hundred and Thirty Days (top); text describing the scene written by a Virginia prisoner (bottom). From the series Some Other Places We’ve Missed.
Josh Begley Facility 237. From the series Prison Map.
50 of the 5,393 facilities imaged by Prison Map, a data art project which automatically “photographs” every locked facility in the U.S. by gleaning files from Google Maps with use of code modified from the Google API code by artist Josh Begley.
Josh Begley Facility 492 From the series Prison Map.
Photographer unknown. Incarcerated girls at Remann Hall, Tacoma, Washington, reenact restraint techniques in a pinhole camera workshop, 2002. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
Photographer unknown: Untitled, Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
Photographer unknown: Steve Davis Untitled, Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series ‘Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).’ Photo: Courtesy of Alyse Emdur.
Alyse Emdur. Anonymous Backdrop Painted in Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York. From the series ‘Prison Landcapes’ (2005- 2011)
Robert Gumpert. Tameika Smith, 9 July 2012, San Francisco, CA. From the series ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story.’
Robert Gumpert. Michael Johnson, 15 August, 2009, San Francisco County Jail 5, San Bruno, CA. From the series ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story.’
Kristen S. Wilkins. Supplication #17 (diptych). “It might be hard to find, but it’s called Trapper Peak near the Bitterroot Valley.” From the series ‘Supplication.’
Kristen S. Wilkins. Supplication #17 (diptych). “It might be hard to find, but it’s called Trapper Peak near the Bitterroot Valley.” From the series ‘Supplication.’
I’ll be giving a curator’s talk in the gallery on Friday, January 24, 2014, 4:30-5:30pm, followed by the opening reception 5:30–7:30pm.
Additionally, poet C.D. Wright will be on campus for a Tri-College Mellon Creative Residency in conjunction with the exhibit, and on January 31, at 12 noon in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Wright and I will host a dialogue about Prison Obscura.
Prison Obscura is presented by Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities with support from the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
Part of the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and located in Whitehead Campus Center, the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery is open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Wednesdays until 8 p.m.
Haverford College is located at 370 Lancaster Avenue, Haverford, PA, 19041.
SPREADING THE WORD
For more information, please contact myself or Matthew Callinan, associate director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and campus exhibitions, at (610) 896-1287 or email@example.com
Poster showing the statistics and aesthetic of ‘Proliferation’ an animated video of prison construction in the United States (1776-2010). Image: Courtesy of Paul Rucker.
Graphic design for Prison Obscura by Ellen Gould.
Photo: Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange
In 1981, freelance photographer Karen Ruckman stepped inside the notorious medium-security Lorton Prison to teach prisoners photography. Lorton was a sprawling barrack-like institution nestled in a rural pocket of the Virginia suburbs. Lorton, a Federal facility, closed in 2001. For decades it was where Washington D.C. sent its convicted felons. Initially, the administration didn’t think the program would last more than a few sessions and the students were cautious. Ruckman successfully won grants, donations from Kodak, cash from private donors, and support from then Mayor’s wife Effi Barry to support the photography workshops. Ruckman taught at Lorton until 1988.
When I recently learnt about Ruckman’s work, I was floored. For the longest time I have said that photography workshops inside of American mens prisons ended in the late seventies and mass incarceration had precluded the mere chance. Ruckman’s work at Lorton has forced me to reevaluate my timeline. I hope Ruckman’s work also brings you encouragement.
In 1985, Ruckman invited cameraman Gary Keith Griffin to film the class at work. Now, she and Griffin are working on a documentary about this unique moment in prison arts education. Ruckman and Griffin have followed some of the men since their release and the film, tentatively titled InsideOut, is slated for release in 2015 — the 30 years after Gary made those first reels.
Ruckman has routinely worked with populations considered to have less of a voice in our society – battered women, the poor, and at -risk youth for example. She also taught photography in the D.C. women’s jail, but that single summer program doesn’t feature in the film.
Karen Ruckman and I spoke about her access, the program’s successes and obstacles, the need for diverse image-makers in criminal justice and the lessons the project contains for us all three decades on.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Photo: Calvin Gorman. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Calvin Gorham
Prison Photography (PP): I wasn’t aware of any prison photography workshop programs after the 70’s and so to find your work at Lorton is a revelation. It’s 25 years since the program ended, so let’s start with the basics, how did you get involved? Where did the idea come from?
Karen Ruckman (KR): I was doing work for the Volunteer Clearinghouse here in D.C. and they sent me to the prison to photograph volunteers who were tutoring inmates. I went to Lorton with George Strawn, the head of volunteer services and he asked if I’d be interested in teaching a class. I hadn’t really thought about it, but it happened to coincide with the funding for proposals coming in to the D.C. Arts Commission and I applied for a career development grant and I got it, much to my surprise.
I went down once a week and taught photography with a focus on career development. I approached it as a basic photography class and I brought in guest speakers, photographers from various newspapers, friends of mine in the community who were photographers. It went very well. The men worked hard, so after that I applied for another grant. Actually, D.C. had a category called ‘Arts in Prison’ during the 80s. I got my later funding through that grant category.
PP: Which photographers visited the class?
KR: Craig Herndon, from the Washington Post; Bernie Boston, from The Los Angeles Times, Gary Keith Griffin who works primarily in video and is working with me on the feature documentary now. I had executives from NBC who came in too, as well as local artists and fine arts photographers.
PP: What other arts program were being taught in D.C. prisons at the time?
KR: There were several theater programs and a woman who taught painting. That’s pretty much it.
Photo: Bernard Seaborn. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Bernard Seaborn
PP: How did the program develop over the 8 years? Did the funding, scope or size of the class change?
KR: I had a cap on how many students I could have but I ended up doing two classes. Prisoners who had been in the earlier classes then became mentors to the new guys. Over time, I became more of a facilitator: bringing in supplies, bringing in expertise, working with them, training them and then they took on the job of mentoring each other.
They also ran the dark room when I wasn’t there. We built a dark room in a closet that was in the prison school where classes took place. I had a teaching assistant, Chuck Kennedy, who came with me from the community but I also had a prisoner who was a teaching assistant so the guys could work during the week. The program grew with more men participating, more prisoners developed skills. The inmates took on more of a teaching role; it was always my goal that they would.
PP: How many students would you say you taught over the seven years?
KR: I tried to figure this out once some years ago! More than 100 but less than 200. We had new intakes for each class and some guys stayed in year after year. They’d been charged for felonies in D.C. Some had written bad checks, others had been charged for murder.
PP: Lorton is now closed?
KR: It was closed in 2001. It was a rather controversial move. The prison was actually located in Virginia on hundreds of acres of land. There were different facilities there including two youth centers, Central, the medium security facility where I taught, and maximum. Virginia had been wanting that land for quite some time.
Lorton’s buildings needed a lot of work, and rather than renovate, they closed it. The Federal government transferred the land to Virginia and now D.C. prisoners are farmed out across all of the country.
PP: Ouch! That can’t be good for rehabilitation.
KR: It’s terrible, yes. And so there’s no programing, and they’re in federal facilities all over the country.
Photo: Sidney Davis. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Sidney Davis
PP: What was the reaction and the response from the prison authority? Today, of course, these programs don’t exist and often the language-of-security is used to deny all sorts of things within prisons, and the camera in particular is quickly labelled as a security hazard. What was the feelings of the Lorton authorities at that time?
KR: I had to take on the job of educator. Many didn’t understood the need for the men to go outside the classroom to photograph, and the usefulness of exhibitions. They understood the photo class but part of that, part of each class was doing a show. We always did one in the community and one in the prison — it was a massive job of educating staff about how we could go about producing the program successfully.
I was very fortunate because Effi Barry, the mayor’s wife, had just opened an art gallery and I had her support. I always went top down. It took me a lot of time to go through the necessary channels and to get the permissions. The administrator at Central Facility, Salanda Whitfield, was a really nice guy who supported the program. He died some years ago.
Mr. Whitfield let the program come in, he let us break the rules, because of course cameras weren’t allowed, and of course inmates were not allowed to take photographs. Even with his backing I still had lots of paperwork to do in order to make the classes function well.
I found some resistance from the guards who felt like the inmates were getting something that was too nice, that wasn’t fair, that they shouldn’t get. So, my real problem when I had problems was always from the guards.
Photo: Michael Moses El. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Michael Moses El
Photo: Calvin Gorman. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Calvin Gorham
PP: Before you began the project, did you consider yourself an activist in that field of criminal justice?
KR: No, I was an activist generally but not particularly in prison reform.
PP: Did you ever have visitors that were inspired by the program and wanted to replicate it elsewhere? Or were you working in a bubble?
KR: I guess I worked in a bubble. I mean, I had visitors and help from others. I had photographers come in, other artists as well, but, no, I didn’t have anyone that wanted to replicate it.
PP: Did you understand at the time that you were doing something very pioneering?
KR: I don’t think so. I mean it was a really interesting time. Many of us were doing things in the community and were trying to think sideways, and I felt like it was something exciting. I had a passion about taking the camera to people who couldn’t normally tell their stories. By giving the men in my program this powerful communication tool, it was an opportunity for them to tell people who they were, it was a humanizing agent.
For the documentary, and since 2001, we’ve followed up with two of the men who were in Lorton and the program.
Michael Moses El had a fascination with guns. He found that when he came into the program that he was able to transfer this fascination with guns to the camera. It was a very exciting thing for him.
Calvin Gorham is an artist. He’s a singer; a soulful person and he used photography as an artistic tool to communicate how he felt. He said he saw a lot of dark things in the prison and he photographed to express that.
PP: And so there’s no doubt in your mind that photography is a rehabilitative tool?
KR: It’s a powerful rehabilitative tool. There are so many levels one could do with it as a storytelling device. Now, with digital imaging, possibilities are unlimited. Yes, absolutely. I worked with other groups in the city. In 1988, I also worked with women at D.C. Jail, then in the 90s with women at a pre-release halfway house. Also, women in various shelters and at-risk kids.
PP: And so tell us about the documentary, it’s been thirty years since you’ve been doing this work, how and why did you decide a documentary was necessary?
KR: In 1985, Gary Griffin, a friend and colleague, bought his first TV camera. Gary thought it would be valuable if we could do video about the program. So I got permission again, days of paperwork, but we went in with a crew for a week in 1985.
Some of the footage in the trailer is from ’85. We never were quite sure what it was going to be. We did put together a fundraising piece because I was always having to raise money.
Photo: Michael Moses El. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Michael Moses El
PP: Right, you were constantly communicating with free society how important your work was and asking for help?
KR: To do the programing, I had to constantly write proposals and fundraise. I was somewhat burnt out by the end of the 80s. The funding for the prison program became very difficult to get. I went on to work with other groups and do different things. The guys would stay in touch with me, they had my business phone and they’d call me when they got out of prison and tell me what they were up to.
But, I still have the wonderful images. I was at a workshop in Santa Fe in the late 90s and showed some of the images to National Geographic photographer Sam Abell. I also had an audio tape from one of the graduations that I put with the images and it was a very powerful slideshow (of sorts) — one of the men at one of the graduations gave a marvelous speech about photography.
Sam was excited by the images and very supportive. He said. “You’ve got to do something with this.”
I decided along with my video production friends to do a reunion. We knew Lorton was closing. I tracked down as many of the guys as I could. We had about 20-25 at the reunion. Gary documented the reunion and then we documented some of the men periodically. We later settled on following Michael and Calvin.
Photo: Calvin Gorman. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Calvin Gorham
PP: Why Michael and Calvin?
KR: Number 1, they were interested in participating. Number 2, they’re very interesting people — Michael is business-oriented, very focused about his life. Calvin’s a musician, we have a lot of footage of him singing. We’ve seen them almost every year since 2001. Gary and I think 30 years is a good amount of time. When we get this feature documentary completed by 2015 it will have been 30 years since Gary began filming.
PP: The documentary is a few things, it seems? A record of a moment; the on-going stories of Michael and Calvin; and a call to action asking people to think about photography’s relationship to educational and rehabilitation?
KR: It is. It’s a character study that presents the power of photography, the power of art, and how important both can be in changing lives.
Only a few of the men now make pictures professionally, but they all make pictures still. The documentary is about the program and how the learning experience has stayed with the participants throughout their lives; how it continues to resonate and define their world view in a positive and powerful way.
The discipline required working in the dark room was critical. For example, one participant, David, spent two years learning how to make a good print. And he ultimately made beautiful prints. Two years. It was very impactful.
Photo: David Mitchell El. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + David Mitchell El
PP: Can you give us your thoughts of storytelling, self-representation and empowerment?
KR: It was always their story to tell. I came in, I gave them cameras. I didn’t take a lot of pictures. I was there as a facilitator. I gave them the tool to tell their stories. I think that’s enormously important.
During that period — and even now — there’s something that is bothersome to me when people go in and take pictures of powerless people. It’s important for people to tell their own story; that doesn’t just shift the viewer, it shifts the person telling the story.
PP: It does seem obvious that if one puts a camera into the hands of someone in the community that you’re trying to bring new information about and to the wider world, but there’s still so many people in the photo world who reject that.
KR: Yes. This is off topic, but probably the most amazing experience I had when I took exhibitions to the community was when I hung a show by women at a shelter for victim’s of domestic violence. We did a show of their work at the D.C. library, in the mid-90s. Visitors would ask me who took the photographs, and when I explained the women photographers were survivors of domestic violence, people would just stop and walk out of the room.
How do we relate to issues that we’re uncomfortable about? Do we not want to see these individuals?
PP: Well, what were attitudes like then about crime? What was the reputation of Lorton? What was the general community’s view of Lorton prison?
KR: Lorton and the D.C. community were very connected in the eighties. So many people from the city were incarcerated there that Lorton was just like a subset of the community. So, there wasn’t as much stigma with prisoners as I encountered among other groups that I worked with, at least in D.C. at that time.
Lorton was considered a very dangerous place. The facilities were old even when I was there. The men lived in dorms and there was one guard per dorm at night so you can imagine that there was some violence. I personally, I didn’t get too involved in that. I tried to go in and do my program with them without judgement.
Photo: Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange
PP: And then tell me about the dark room? Were there any issues with taking chemicals and other apparatus in?
KR: The dark room was fabulous! I brought the supplies and the men ran the dark room. Kodak gave me film and photographic paper. I bought chemicals. We had lots of applicants, but I could only take so many, so it was considered a reward for someone to get into the photography program.
PP: On what criteria did you decide admission?
KR: They had to have good behavior to be allowed in the program. When it started out I only admitted men that were within three years of parole because the lessons were about career development; it was my hope to actually help guys get jobs once they got out. After a while, we relaxed that rule and a few guys still had a lot of time to serve.
PP: And could students be removed from the program at the whim of the warden or the staff?
KR: Well, I lost a few people because they misbehaved in prison and were sent to the hole (solitary confinement), or to another prison. That happened.
PP: When you release the documentary have you got any plans for distribution. How do you plan to reach audiences?
KR: I’m taking that a step at a time. We are going to finish a 30-minute short this winter that we’ll take to film festivals. A local organization, Docs In Progress, is hosting a showing of the trailer. I’ll contact our local PBS station, but with the feature-length film I have to plan a more structured distribution plan. It’s very important to get it out. I’ve stayed in connection with people in the D.C. community, people like Marc Mauer at the Sentencing Project and others who care about the issue.
PP: What’s your personal position on prisons? What role does incarceration play in our society?
KR: There are people who commit violent crimes and they belong in prison. Some of the men that I worked with said that being in prison gave them an opportunity to really look at themselves and take a timeout and to correct their behavior. There is a role for prison if they have rehabilitation programs.
Of course, we all know that there are way too many people that are incarcerated and there are people that are incarcerated that just shouldn’t be there, so it’s very frustrating. Things haven’t changed all that much since the eighties except we’ve incarcerated more people.
D.C. incarcerates an enormous number of people. With the poverty and lack of good public education here. That’s the story of the documentary. Calvin’s son went to prison and Michael’s son went to prison. So, we talk about that story, it’s that legacy that’s just, it should be broken. Marian Wright Edelman‘s work with the Children’s Defense Fund deals with this issue, and has a program called the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.
Photo: Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange
PP: Do you think the American public gets reliable information on prisons?
It’s my sense that most people aren’t interested in prisons. When I tried to raise money for the program it was very hard. There’s little compassion. Around drugs and drug culture there’s some alternative sentencing programs happening but by and large, I don’t think people are interested. I mean, now, we have for-profit prisons which is even more atrocious because now we have to maintain the population so that profit lines can be maintained.
PP: I ask because, to my mind, if there were more photography programs like yours occurring in our prisons today, there would exist a more nuanced view of prisons; prisoners’ views. We’d all be in a better place in terms of being informed.
KR: Yes, absolutely. The program had a humanizing effect, both on the participants and in how they were viewed by the community. It provided a bridge, and it didn’t cost the tax payers much. I secured small grants and fundraised and so it was for tax payers a really good deal. That’s true of most arts programming.
PP: Often program funding is based on measurable impacts but a lot of time with prisons you can’t measure those so easily because some people are not getting out for ten or twenty years. You can’t correlate arts rehabilitation with recidivism because the prisoners don’t get out in any short space of time. So, what stories do you have about your students? Any stand out stories that convince you of the efficacy of a photography program?
KR: The men would be the ones to tell you. Sadly, a lot of the guys die; they don’t make it. Some of them die soon after they get out.
I think about Calvin and Michael — the program gave them discipline and an opportunity to evolve productively. Michael told us about a time soon after his release when he was very tempted to commit a violent act against another man. Something stopped him. It was, he said, it was the discipline and working relationships that he had developed during the program. He didn’t want to end up back at Lorton.
A couple of the guys do a lot of professional photography. It’s very hard to answer that question because people want to ask, “Okay, well how many guys got a job as a photographer?”
PP: How many people generally get jobs as photographers!
KR: Actually, Michael was hired by US News and World Report to shoot a cover story on poverty, and he took some amazing pictures. They were going to use one of his photos for the cover but when they found out he was an ex-offender they wouldn’t run his photo. He’s still very bitter about that.
PP: What’s his past history got to do with the suitability of a photograph?
KR: It was many years ago; it was the late 80s.
PP: But that’s complete discrimination.
KR: I was told by several photographers at the Post that they would be uncomfortable to have ex-offenders there because they would be afraid that they would steal equipment. These are the attitudes that make it really tough for ex-offenders to get jobs in fields other than construction or the food industry, though a few of them do get jobs driving Metro buses.
PP: Is there anything I’ve missed?
KR: I appreciate you finding and highlighting the work. We’re excited about finishing the film. The project has ended up — without me realizing it — a life work.