You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Documentary’ category.

KAREN, 69, in a homeless shelter four weeks after her release. East Village, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 35 years
Released: April 2017
“When I made parole plans, I thought I was going to have a good re-entry situation in the house I paroled to. I realized almost immediately that it wouldn’t work out, so I left, without anywhere else to go. Parole sent me to a homeless assessment shelter in the south Bronx. The quality of the bedding and the food was a lateral move from prison. But factoring in my freedom, there’s no question that it was an improvement. Now, I’m in a shelter run by the Women’s Prison Association. I feel safe and secure. The room is spare, with not much in it, but it’s mine. In this room, I find comfort, privacy, safety, and peace of mind.”

 

Working as a public defender, Sara Bennett has met a great many women who have faced struggle and hardship. Many serve, or have served, long sentences. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women has increased by 800% in the U.S. There are nearly 100,000 women in state prisons and federal penitentiaries. A further 110,000 are in county jails, 80% of whom report having been the victim of sexual assault during their life time. Women who have been convicted of serious crimes have, more often than not, been the victims of serious abuse themselves. Irrespective of crime, I have consistently argued that mass incarceration does little to improve or heal. It does the opposite. It damages.

When facing conservative opposition, prison reformers often resort to arguments against the incarceration of non-violent people, women included. Reformers attempt to find sympathetic groups within the prison system for whom the public may be persuaded to support. This is all well and good, but it comes at a price; people convicted of violent crimes are left to rot, so to speak. For advocates such as Bennett, it is clear that long sentences achieve little and that the abuses of the prison industrial complex are wrought on all who it swallows. The Bedroom Project humanizes women who have recently re-entered society after serving long, multi-decade Life With Parole sentences.

Bennett has created a space for each of these women to reflect upon their post-release situation. They regale personal tales and they are photographed in their most personal spaces–their bedrooms. In some cases, a bedroom might be the only place some of these women can claim as their own.

Bennett is a former criminal defense attorney who most frequently represented battered women and the wrongly convicted. She uses photography to amplify her observations of the criminal justice system. Her first project, Life After Life in Prison documented the lives of four women as they returned to society after spending decades in prison. Bennett decries the “pointlessness of extremely long sentences and arbitrary parole denials”. The Bedroom Project is currently on show at the CUNY School of Law in Long Island City, New York until March 28th.

Keen to know more about Bennett’s process and motivations, I approached her with a few questions about The Bedroom Project. Scroll down for our Q&A in which we discuss the meaning of the work for both subjects and audiences.

 

EVELYN, 42, in an apartment she shares with a roommate five years after her release. Queens, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: 20 years
Released: April 2012
“Look where I am now. Five years ago, I came out from a little cell, started out in a halfway house, moved to an apartment, back to a transitional home, and now I’m in my own room in an apartment I share with a roommate. What can be better than this? This is happening.”

 

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Many of the women you photographed are living in a room in a community house, or an apartment building for returning citizens, or in a one bedroom apartment. So, they have a single room that is their own. While imprisoned, they may or may not have had a cellmate, and the degree to which they could personalise their cell would differ. No matter, they lived within walls for long periods. You’re photographing them also within walls. Tell us about why you focused on their bedrooms.

Sara Bennett (SB): It’s not the similarity to the prison cell that I’m trying to highlight, but the contrast. It’s true that most of the women now live in shared spaces, but still there’s a sense of intimacy, self, and pride. They all have items on display that would have been contraband in prison, including stuffed animals, wooden picture frames, patterned sheets, cellphones and computers. For decades, their cells were randomly inspected, they were locked in every evening, and they were forced to move at a moment’s notice. Now these bedrooms are their own.

 

TOWANDA, 45, in her own apartment five years after her release, with her daughter, Equanni. Bronx, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: almost 23 years
Released: October 2012
“I was in the shelter system for the first four years. It was about the same as prison. You’re confined, you can’t do anything, you don’t have your own thoughts, you’re always stressed out. It’s good to have my own apartment and pay my own bills. It’s peaceful and I feel safe.”

 

PP: What was the dynamic between you and the women.

SB: For many years, I was the pro bono clemency attorney for Judith Clark, who was serving a 75-year-to-life sentence for her role as a getaway driver in a famous New York Case—the Brinks robbery of 1981. All my subjects know her and my first photography project, Spirit on the Inside, is about the women who were incarcerated with her and her influence on their lives. (Spirit on the Inside book.)

The reaction to Spirit on the Inside—viewers were surprised that the formerly incarcerated women were just regular women—sparked my second project, Life After Life in Prison. I followed four women in various stages of re-entry, and I spent so much time with each of them that we really got to know each other. At the same time, I began work on The Bedroom Project, and the four women put me in touch with other potential subjects. So before I even walked in the door, my new portrait subjects were open to me. They’d seen my previous work; they knew some of my former subjects or clients; and they’d been told that I could be trusted.

I’ve ended up being a mentor or friend to almost all the women I’ve photographed.

PP: Why did you choose to include the women’s handwriting?

SB: My goal in all of my photography work is to show the humanity in people who are, or were, incarcerated. I believe that if judges, prosecutors and legislators could see lifers as real individuals, they would rethink the policies that lock them away forever. I want viewers to know what these women are thinking. Including their handwriting emphasizes that these are their words, these are their thoughts.

I asked all of them the same question: “When you see this photo I took of you, what does it make you think?” Their answers are varied and lead the viewer to all kinds of issues—from what it feels like to live in a cell, to educational and employment opportunities inside and outside prison, the difficulties in getting parole and being on parole, finding housing, and issues of remorse, regret, and forgiveness.

 

TRACY, 51, in her own apartment three-and-a-half years after her release. Jamaica, NY (2017)
Sentence: 22 years to life
Served: 24 years
Released: February 2014
“I imagined coming home, living in a one- or two-bedroom apartment, where one was a master and an extra room for guests. Here I have that. I call this room my “doll house,” my safe haven. I feel at peace. I’ve finally unpacked. I spend a lot of time in here. I take pride in everything. I put more into this room than into the kitchen. I know I need to eat, but my room is my nutrition.”

MIRIAM, 51, in transitional housing two months after her release. Corona, NY (2018)
Sentence: 20 years to life
Served: 30 years
Released: December 2017
“This room is my room. A place of my sanity unlike the one in prison. No one will bother me if I’m heard talking to myself. I can think clearly, I can breathe, I can live my way, dress my way, look at things my may. Move my furniture around my way. I love my room. It’s mine—all mine and no one can say anything about it.”

 

PP: What were the main victories for these women post release? What were their main challenges?

SB: Each woman’s circumstance is unique and so their challenges and victories are different. I’d say the biggest and most immediate challenge is finding housing. There are some re-entry programs that provide housing that is either temporary (up to six months) or semi-permanent, and many of the women were lucky enough to get into one of those programs. Some of the women ended up in homeless shelters and some have bounced around from place to place. I know two women who went home to live with family but both ended up moving to housing programs, in part because those programs offer a community that feels familiar and supportive.

Some of the women have completed educational degrees since coming home, some have found rewarding jobs and relationships, and unsurprisingly, the longer a woman has been home, the more stable she becomes.

But most have difficulty finding a job, let alone a decent job, and almost all of them have financial struggles. Many get benefits but that amount is paltry.

It’s mind boggling how quickly the women seem to adapt, how resilient they are, and how they take challenges in stride. Remember, my subjects spent anywhere from 15 to 35 years in prison. The outside world changed radically in that time. As Aisha, one of my subjects says, “It’s like putting a kindergartner in college”.

 

AISHA, 45, in a house she shares with 5 other women 14 months after her release. Flushing, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 25 years
Released: June 2016
“When I was released, I didn’t feel overwhelmed; I felt as though I was right where I was supposed to be. Later though, the feeling of being overwhelmed came as I found myself on the business side of life: food shopping, rent, bills, metrocards, etc. That was all new to me because I lived at home with my mom until I was arrested. My children were one and three years old when I left them and I felt as if they were one and three the whole time I was away. I feel that way about myself now. I was arrested when I was 19 and being in this big, unfamiliar, advanced world makes me feel like a 19-year-old trapped in a 45 year old body. I am both happy and grateful to be out here, but it’s like putting a kindergartener in college.”

VALERIE, 62 in an apartment she shares with a roommate. Bronx, NY (2018).
Sentence: 19 years to life.
Served: 17 years (granted clemency by Governor Andrew Cuomo).
Released: January 2017
“I got my freedom. That’s true! But it’s not the same as being free free. I like to travel. I used to go to VA, to PA, and the casinos and the boardwalk in Atlantic City. I love the beach. But I can’t go anywhere without my PO’s permission. If I want to go to a play or a concert, I need my PO’s permission. Until I get off parole, my life is messed up. I can’t do what I want.”

 

PP: Release from prison is not easy thing. Many of the women were given “numbers-to-life” sentences. Some got out on their parole date, others years after their first parole eligibility. What has been the situation in NY state for releasing persons who’ve served long sentences? Has parole and release become more common recently?

SB: When I first became an attorney in 1986, there was a presumption of parole. If, for example, a person had a sentence of 15 years to life, then she’d likely be released after serving her 15 years, provided that she hadn’t been in serious trouble in the few years prior. But when Governor Pataki took office in 1995, that presumption changed. And no matter how people spent their time in prison—working in trades, earning college degrees, setting up programs, having excellent disciplinary records, living in honor housing—they were repeatedly denied parole based on the one factor that will never change: the nature of the crime they committed.

I like to think that the parole system in New York State is starting to change. In the last six months, the number of parole grants has steadily increased, in part because Governor Andrew Cuomo has had the opportunity to appoint new parole commissioners and in part because of a culture shift that recognizes that, we, as a society, lock people up for far too long. Still, we have a long way to go.

 

CAROL, 69, in a communal residence four years after her release. Long Island City, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 35 years
Released: March 2013
“When I was inside, I dreamed of getting out, getting a job, travelling a little bit. But by the time I got out, my health was bad. Basically, that changed all plans. I wish I could do more, but I’m at peace. I have my grandson, Cecil. He’s precious.”

 

PP:  What have been the audiences’ responses to the work?

SB: The photos are currently facing out onto a busy street in Queens, NY and I’ve eavesdropped as passersby have studied the portraits and talked to each other. I’ve never heard anyone say, “you do the crime, you do the time.” Rather, passersby seem sympathetic, drawn in, and incredulous at the amount of time that the women have spent in prison. I’ve also moderated more than a dozen panel conversations with my subjects, and the audiences have been very responsive to the women. No matter what the women’s pasts might have been, today they are hard-working, loving, resilient, optimistic people, and the audience seems to understand that they have earned second chances.

PP: Do prisons work?

SB: That’s such a loaded question that I’m not sure how to answer it. Suffice it to say that in this country we incarcerate way too many people for way too long under conditions that are dehumanizing and obscene. In other countries, imprisonment itself is the punishment, but the conditions themselves are not punitive and abysmal.

PP: In extension of your photos and the women’s own testimonies, what would you like to impress upon members of the public about improvements in the criminal justice system?

SB: For a long time, most of the conversation around changing the criminal justice system has focused on non-violent felony offenders. President Obama talked a lot about non-violent felony offenders and low-level drug offenders. I’m concerned about people with really lengthy, or life sentences, those who are either repeatedly denied parole or don’t even have that possibility. That’s why my only criteria for The Bedroom Project was that the subjects had a life sentence. (A life sentence doesn’t really mean life in prison unless it’s life without parole. A sentence of say, 25 years to life, means that after 25 years a person becomes eligible for parole.) I wanted to really drive home the point: people with life sentences are ordinary (in the best sense of the word) human beings. They deserve second chances.

 

MARY, 51, with her niece, Trish, in her own apartment 19 years after her release. Brooklyn, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: 15 years
Released: May 1998
“I’ve been home 19 years, but re-entry is a lifetime process. In many ways prison is with you forever. Still, the impact is a lot less than it used to be. For years, everything I did, everything I thought about, reflected back to prison. It was about 15 years out—I did 15 years in—that I stopped connecting to that girl I was in prison. Maybe you have to do the same amount of time outside as you did inside until you feel FREE from it.

”LINDA, 70, in her own apartment 14 years after her release. Albany, NY (2017)
Sentence: 17 years to life
Served: 14 years. Granted clemency by Governor George Pataki
Released: February 2003
“I love my apartment. The building is clean. I feel safe and at peace. I been here 10 years. I been out of prison 14 years. It’s so hard when you get out. I just stayed strong. With a friend’s help I got a job as a housekeeper in a hospital. I stayed there for 9-1/2 years. Then I retired. As of now I have to try very hard to stay on my budget finance wise. I have a good family & friends in my life. I thank the life I have now. And I thank God everyday that I am alive and safe. Thank you God.”

 

PP: What effects (positive and/or negative) do prisons and reentry have on women? What are their needs that often get overlooked?

SB: One of the saddest things to me about prison is that it can be the first time a woman has found safety in her life. Most women in prison have been victims of gender-based violence. I’ll never forget a client telling me that she got her first good night’s sleep when she went to prison, no longer subject to abuse by her boyfriend. So, in that sense, prison initially brought some peace as well as a sense of community and self awareness to some of the women I know. Of course, that came at the extremely high cost of the loss of freedom.

In general, women have fewer outside contacts than men and lose touch with their families much quicker than men do. So they are very isolated from the outside world and come home to a world that has moved on without them. They find a society that puts up a series of hurdles: they are required to attend state-mandated programs, barred from inexpensive public housing and banned from voting. In addition, they face travel limitations and curfews that make visiting family and working more difficult. When they eventually become eligible to be released from parole, they are often denied without explanation.

I hope the stories of these women remind us of the countless people still in prison who, like them, deserve that same chance to build a life on the outside.

PP: Thanks, Sara.

SB: Thank you.

 

 

 

Advertisements

 

Dutch photographer Jan Banning is fascinated by what communism looks like today. In 2013, he set out to document the obscured activities of small Communist Party chapters in Italy, India, Nepal, Portugal and Russia.

“I’m interested in countries in which communism isn’t a dominating ideology and places I could assume that members do it out of conviction and not because they think it’s good for their career,” says Banning of the series, Red Utopia. “Many of the local party members I met, who are still plodding along, certainly have a place in my heart now — either because of their own sad fate or because of how they devote themselves to social justice, often unpaid, and in many practical ways offer help to ordinary people.”

I wrote about the work for Timeline. Read and see more: Photos: A look at communists and their humble party offices around the globe

 

 

My end of year resolution was to avoid best of lists. My new years resolution is to write more letters on paper to actual people. Here’s 8-minutes of writing I made for the LensCulture 2017 Best Photobooks list.

I nominated three books, but only Jim Mortam’s was included in LC’s published rundown best of. By comparison, my selections look not very arty and quite concerned with real life.

Rob Stothard and Silvia Mollicchi

Removal

 

 

Impeccably researched, quietly shot, and brilliantly designed to mimic a UK Home Office report, Removal takes stock of the immigration real estate *portfolio* in Britain. Safely photographed from distance, Stothard’s unfrequented images remind us that we see virtually nothing of the insides of these sites. The extent to which private firms contract, own and operate these facilities is shocking.

Jim Mortram

Small Town Inertia

 

A long time coming (in the best way), Small Town Inertia proves that you needn’t chase the big smoke, the big names or the big bangs to make important work that speaks universally. From the town of Dereham and the surrounds, Mortram has made work that should remind us of our deep connection to, and responsibility for, our neighbours.

Jeffrey Stockbridge

Kensington Blues

 

 

A comprehensive, difficult and generous portrait of Philadelphians in some very challenged parts of the city. Stockbridge lived among his subjects and was a fixture on the blocks; that’s important to know because he has exposed some subjects while they’re engaged in risky behaviours. Subjects stand in the light, adopt body shapes and fix their stares right down the lens. Some scenes in Kensington Blues aren’t pretty but, then again, you’re not pretty. Most of the characters and their strength of character just take your breath away.

 

 

 

 

What to do with a defunct prison? Demolish? Renovate into a hotel or apartments. Create a museum or arts centre? The response and reuse of prisons depends largely on economics but also on whether a society has written and agreed on a narrative and the place of the prison in relation to the state and body politic.

For example, Robben Island is an obvious memorial to anti-Apartheid campaigners and their unjust imprisonment; a rejection of state-sanctioned racism. Similarly, Tuol Sleng in Cambodia is a Genocide Museum honouring the victims of the Khmer Rouge. While Alcatraz does include information about the American Indian Movement and the Indian Occupation of the island in 1969-71, the narrative is mostly a distant historical view of “The Rock” in which tourists can get macabre and creeped out, safely.

Now closed, Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, doesn’t have an agreed history, yet. It cannot be so easily be packaged for a public, or narrative. Opened in 1835, Kingston Pen established the basis of Canada’s prison philosophy; the architectural embodiment of prison as a legal structure in accordance with British rule and colonial prerogatives. It was a place for carceral not corporal punishment—100 months instead of 100 licks of the paddle.

Until its closure in 2013, Kingston Pen was one of the longest continuous operating prisons in the world. It was shuttered due to rising maintenance costs and documented human rights violations. In its 160 years, Kingston Pen served up hardship and oppression. Not least, as in all Western societies, for minority groups and indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples make up less than four percent of the Canadian population, yet they account for the largest demographic of prisoners.

Into the awaiting “space” of cultural definition and narrative framing of Kingston Pen, enter Through a Penal System, Darkly (2013 – 2015), a raking, bamboozling, photo-based survey of the prison by artist Cindy Blažević and partners. Onto a general history of the institution, Blažević knits oral histories of current and past corrections administrators, legal experts, staff and prisoners. Audio clips, maps, photo-documentation and photo-composites bring the past to this very moment and foreground prison abolition arguments.

 

An illustration of a Plains-style teepee is superimposed onto a photo of a small, enclosed prison yard – a place where Indigenous cultural practices would often take place. The actual teepee was packed away, as part of the decommissioning process, before Blažević had a chance to photograph it.

 

For some, the closure of Kingston Pen, as with many iconic prisons, might serve as an excuse to draw a line and refrain from examining history, but Through a Penal System, Darkly encourages us to do the opposite and leap right back into our immediate history; to face the many shortcomings of incarceration.

In an excellent read of Blažević’s work, Ellyn Walker delineates the way, familial, racial and social-control dynamics persist in society, through the prison, and because of the prison.

“One must consider deeply the ways in which justice and compassion go hand-in-hand, in particular, in spaces of extreme vulnerability and oppression, such as the prison,” writes Walker, who quotes Dr. Angela Y. Davis as she urges us to look toward contested sites: “The prison is one of the most important features of our image environment,” said Davis.

“[The prison] reveals the imperative for reimagining how we both understand and practice justice,” adds Walker. That’s why Through a Penal System, Darkly is such a landmark work of art and research. Comprehensive and content-rich, Through a Penal System, Darkly has been presented as an exhibition and lives online as a multi-pronged inquiry. Working with law students, Blažević made the project while the inaugural artist-in-residence (2013-14) at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto.

Energised by the way in which she pushed passed the mere static image and committed political and complex readings of the prison, I pressed Blažević with some questions on the kernels, goals and outcomes of the project. I can only provide a smattering of the hundreds of photograph Blažević made and as the audio and context for the photos is so key, I encourage you all to visit the Through a Penal System, Darkly website and spend some time.

 

 

Some of the surprising colours in Blažević’s images are reminiscent of William Eggleston’s photography. Somehow the electrical switch boxes, mail-drops, wall paintings, signage and the vernacular touches make for the most engaging photos. The deadpan images of children’s play structures and lawn chairs speak to the normalisation of prison operations. Janitorial, medical and infrastructural observations reveal the comprehensiveness of resources and operations. The exterior shots seem mostly to be establishing shots and hold the least interest, but I suspect Blažević is aware of this. Still, she was there to photograph as much as possible, almost forensically while her access lasted. There are other comparisons to be made between Through a Penal System, Darkly and other photographers work, and Blažević and I talk about them in the Q&A below.

While Through a Penal System, Darkly undoubtedly required a massive amount of work, significant institutional support, the buy-in of co-makers, and others’ skillsets, I think it is a project that is instructive about how professionals working with media can explode the issue of prisons and other controversial, historically-rich sites.

Scroll on for our Q&A.

 

Q & A

Why should people care about prisons?

This Angela Davis quote really nails it: “There is reluctance to face the realities hidden within [prisons], a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our social surroundings.”

That, in a nutshell, is why people should care. We’re naïve to think that prisons and criminal justice happen in a bubble that has nothing to do with the configuration of all of society.

Prisons are very much a reflection of our deepest, seemingly unsolvable social problems. This project looked at the many ways that prisons obscure our individual and collective responsibilities of taking seriously the ongoing problems of our society, particularly those produced by racism, colonialism, patriarchy and global capitalism. Kim Pate, one of the contributors to my project, at the time Director of the Elizabeth Fry Societies and currently a Canadian senator, spoke about prison being the only system that couldn’t say no. In other words, when the health care system and the legal aid system and the welfare system are unable to help you, because of successive budget cuts, the prison will be there for you.

Decarceration should be everybody’s business.

The relatability of the project was important to me, which is why the exhibition that accompanied the website was a massive photograph mounted on the exterior of the law school, accessible to all passers-by and not exclusively to law students or gallery goers, and linked to the website. I want everyone to care.

 

 

Where did your interest in prisons begin? Generally, or with Kingston specifically?

Who doesn’t have a natural fascination with prisons? With what it means to lose one’s freedom?

As a visual artist, I have a specific interest in spaces and how they define us, as individuals and as a society. I majored in International Relations and minored in political science, so the interest has always been there, simmering away in the background, as a backdrop to many of the subjects I’ve explored over the years, academically and artistically.

Kingston Penitentiary, whose interior architecture had never been photographed in any systematic way, holds a deep fascination with the Canadian public. So when I heard it would close, I thought, let me try to get in there. And I did.

What started as a project to photograph 19th century experiments in prison architecture no longer acceptable to our current ideas of incarceration, turned into a massive photographic and audio compendium of issues and thoughts expressed and experienced about the Canadian justice system, all through the lens of Kingston Penitentiary.

At its root, I think Through a Penal System, Darkly is a project about fairness, about what is actually fair when it comes to punishment. Working on it has given me pause to appreciate how fundamental our preoccupation with justice is. I have three children and it is really incredible how fairness and a sense of justness is prevalent even at an extremely early age. One could dismiss this as philosophical waxing, but the basic ubiquity of it is undeniable.

 

 

What is the public opinion in Canada toward prisons?

An apathy arising from the false comfort that America has a problem with over-incarceration and that, because we’re not America, we don’t. Canadians see themselves as social progressives, as we are on many fronts. This seemed to stop at prisons under the previous, Conservative government. Even though statistics showed crime rates have been dropping for decades, the Harper Conservative government took a “tough on crime” approach: more prisons, longer sentences, mandatory minimums, and eliminating discretion for courts. Under the current Liberal government, whatever its shortcomings, the Supreme Court has ruled that many of the anti-crime laws enacted by the Harper government were unconstitutional. These actions have a role in shaping public opinion, tangentially.

Just the other day our national broadcaster, CBC, aired a story about the “shock and dismay” of parents and area residents to news that a halfway house for federal penitentiary inmates would open beside a Toronto Catholic elementary school. It’s telling. It’s sad that media perpetuates many of the black-and-white, negative, populist stereotypes surrounding criminal justice.

Honestly, I think most people don’t have a clue about what happens inside prison. A few days into my project I realised I didn’t either, not really. For example, I hadn’t given any thought to the reality that when one is sentenced to prison the term of their removal from freedom is supposed to be the punishment itself, but, actually, prisoners experience layer after layer of additional punishments and micro-aggressions—from withholding mail to arbitrary corporal punishment. Why would a former inmate have to endure continued punishment, say, in the form of community isolation, while finishing the terms of his or her sentence in a halfway house?

 

 

Why did you decide to lay out the information as you did in this wide-ranging, chapter-esque history of Kingston Prison?

The reality of incarceration is not simple or easily summarised, so how could depicting that reality be any less complex? I wanted to create a legal and historical context for the photographs. There are many chapters to the story of this prison, so many ways of thinking about incarceration and concepts of justice. I had real difficulty editing down the many stories and perspectives I encountered while fitting them into the parameters of the residency. And that is why the project sits at such a busy intersection of art, photographic documentation, social justice, cultural anthropology, legal theory, historical research and oral storytelling.

At heart is the realisation that every photograph I took has long tendrils of political, legal and social reality trailing beneath it. That’s not just a fenced-in yard or a sad-looking metal door you’re looking at, that’s the consequence of a policy that was drawn up, discussed, implemented and is a plan for how to go about “correcting” behaviour, how to set a moral balance right.

At its simplest, the project maps out—literally and conceptually—the relationship of the architecture to its previous inhabitants. It’s a political, legal and historical choose-your-own adventure.

Were the experts and others you interviewed keen to talk? It seems a decommissioned facility gives more license to be honest about the criminal justice system? Would you agree?

Ha! I had great difficulty getting access. I had to leverage my grant from the Canada Council for the Arts (a federal body) to get permission from the Commissioner of the Corrections Services Canada to enter the facility.

The experts were, indeed, keen to talk, but the Department of Justice was not so keen to let their employees do so. On the morning of a scheduled interview with two CSC employees, the DoJ intercepted, postponing it until my questions had been screened. Initially, I was surprised. However, the CSC, already cautious and unforthcoming, became perceptively more so following the 2007 suicide of Ashley Smith while in detention and especially when a 2013 inquest ruled her death a homicide. My interviews and inquiries took place in the months following this ruling, when the CSC was under greater scrutiny for its treatment of prisoners, especially the mentally ill. I don’t think an artist is particularly threatening, though an artist paired with a law school might be, I suppose.

What were the most surprising testimonies you heard?

The syndicated prison radio show really hit me. The tongue-in-cheek songs and skits paint a very different picture from the kind of controlled environment, detached from its surrounding community, that we’ve come to associate with a federal penitentiary.

The emotional account given by Margaret Beare of the breakdown in humaneness that happens inside total institutions.

Kim Pate, who is now a Senator, talking about what the replacement of old-fashioned metal keys with electronic buttons (to open cell doors) means for the mental health of prisoners.

How extremely poorly correctional officers are educated in mental health intervention, not to mention how much the officers themselves struggle in this regard, with PTSD at post-Vietnam War levels.

And new information that stuck with you?

The bricks and mortar architecture dictating how we imprison, how we punish/correct long after our ideologies and laws change. The implication being that a more progressive approach to justice would be curtailed by the expensive assemblage of bricks that themselves were the result of the imperfect plans and fads of the day.

 

 

 

Who did you work with on Through a Penal System, Darkly?

The photography was made possible thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. What followed—the contextualization of the photographs, the website – was the result of an artist residency at the Osgoode Hall Law School, an unusual intersection of disciplines that was the brainchild of the school’s forward-thinking Dean, Lorne Sossin.

The focus of the residency was to research and create a legal and historical context for the photographs I had taken—which was accomplished through collaboration with seven upper-year law students who elected to take my Directed Reading course.

Through research, discussions and interviews with the various stakeholders, the students and I explored the ideals of the criminal justice system—past, present and future. Ultimately, the photographs and accompanying stories, essays, historical anecdotes tell us something about Kingston Penitentiary. However, they also invite us to ruminate on the bigger picture—that is, on the evolving structure of the penal system, on society’s changing understanding of the role of prison, and on the role played by the many people who have a willing or unwilling stake in the criminal justice and penal systems. The breadth and scope of the interviews and essays are owed mostly to them.

The work for me sits somewhere between Donovan Wylie’s work on the decommissioned Long Kesh Prison, Northern Ireland, Geoffrey James’ work on Kingston and perhaps even the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History.

I love Donovan Wylie’s comment about “applying a [photographic] system to a [prison] system”. I can relate to it. Wylie’s Maze series is one of my favourites. Those curtains! I couldn’t help but have him in the back of my mind when I was arranging my project.

It wasn’t until Geoffrey James published his book that I had any idea he, too, had photographed the prison. We don’t run in similar circles. He had such great access! My access was minimum and given grudgingly by the Head of the Correctional Service Canada.

I like thinking that my project aligns with the work of Tings Chak, which strives to be more experiential than the more straight-forward documentarian photographs of, say, Geoffrey James. Her graphic novel, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, explores the role and ethics of architectural design and representation in mass incarceration, and is pretty amazing.

Another artist who is documenting from an interesting angle is Brett Story, who just finished her PhD in geography at University of Toronto and made a film The Prison In Twelve Landscapes about the influence of prisons on public systems, cities and economics.

It’s a gorgeous, harrowing film. I thought it was one of the best films of 2016.

I’d like to see more multimedia in-depth photo-based pieces like Through a Penal System, Darkly. It seems the skills to code all this might beyond most people? Am I right, or am I just a luddite? Could Through a Penal System, Darkly be used as a template for other projects?

Thank you! You’re no luddite—the coding was beyond me and so would have been the cost of hiring a programmer without institutional support. I am grateful to Osgoode Hall Law School for generously providing the resources (developers, hosting, etc) to bring to life the idea in my head. I would love to use it as a template for future projects.

These types of projects are expensive and there is some risk. Another major project (also map-based) that I worked on 2007-2010 across seven Balkan countries with multiple arts organisations and which was funded by major European institutions went offline in 2015 because Google stopped supporting the web-based map platform on which the entire site was built. And, poof!, the work no longer exists. The cost of rebuilding it is too high and the momentum to search for support has passed. In-depth multimedia web projects are tricky things.

 

 

How and where do you want the work to sit? What do you hope it will do?

I hope the work sparks reaction and thought. It would be great if my own small contribution could inspire a change in the direction and tone of the conversation around decarceration.

I would love the opportunity to re-mount the exhibition publicly elsewhere.

I hope the website will continue to be used as a resource at Osgoode Hall Law School. It’s currently being used by high school students via the Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) program, an innovative collaborative academic and extracurricular education program aimed at supporting, guiding and motivating high school students who face challenges in engaging successfully with school and accessing postsecondary education, which is wonderful.

Thanks, Cindy.

Thank you, Pete.

 

 

All images: Cindy Blažević

 

 

 

 

This article was originally published as Vinny: David, Mon Frere, in French translation in Polka, Issue 39.

Vinny and David is a story about two brothers coming of age in New Mexico. Growing up with near absent fathers and a loving but struggling mother, Vinny and David came to rely on, and love, one another. They have both been incarcerated but their lives are more than the prisons, poverty and addictions that have inundated their young lives. Isadora Kosofsky has been photographing the siblings and their family for five years.

“You’ve taken the pictures that show what we are feeling inside,” says David. “The photos that go inside us.”

Kosofsky gets close. She consciously develops friendships first. Sometimes those friendships develop into a long-term project, sometimes not. At aged 24, she been documenting Vinny and David for nearly a quarter of her life.

“I must share in my subjects’ struggles over a sustained period of time in order to forge a bond. The relationships are more important to me than the actual image making,” she says.

 

 

The long association began one evening in 2012 in the juvenile detention center in Albuquerque. Vinny, aged 13, had just been arrested for stabbing a man who was assaulting his mother, Eve. Once he took his seat, Kosofsky introduced herself and listened. Though young, Vinny was full of wisdom and sensitivity.

“He spoke extensively about his relationship with his older brother,” says Kosofsky, “particularly talking about wanting his brother’s attention. What I had learned about Vinny and David’s brotherly relationship intrigued me, and I knew that in order to document Vinny’s life, I had to include David.”

One of the reasons Vinny was compelled to defend his mother was David’s absence. David was locked up, in the local county jail. Between 2011 and 2014, while awaiting trial for aggravated assault, David was repeatedly locked up for parole violations—either failure to check in with his parole officer or a dirty urine analysis.

After one-month, Vinny was released. The man he stabbed was not seriously injured. Vinny has not returned to jail since.

 

 

David got out of jail a couple of weeks before Vinny. Felicia, who was then David’s girlfriend, remembers only one good thing from that time: Vinny’s phone-call, from juvenile hall, on the day David was released.

“Vinny told David for the first time that he loved him, and that he was his brother,” says Felicia. “It brought them closer.”

Kosofsky asked the family if she could document them in their daily lives. Vinny doubted they’d agree to it, but they did. David was the most guarded. It was a year before his “mask” came off and Kosofsky was able to capture moments of his life.

Exposure to the prison system has marked effects on the whole family. Kosofsky describes Vinny, Davids and the family’s lives as ‘transcarceral’.

“As a relative or friend, one is powerless to intervene, waiting hours for phone calls, weeks for visits and years for legal decisions and then release, sometimes with an unknown date,” she says. “When David was cycling in and out of jail, a looming fear of loss hovered over the entire family.”

 

 

Furthermore, incarceration only adds to the emotional and financial stress of life, particularly so in New Mexico, the 49th poorest U.S. state. Children from lower-economic backgrounds are disproportionately impacted by incarceration.

In 2015, the most recent year’s figures available, approximately 921,600 juveniles were arrested. On any given night there are 40,970 children behind bars. With an average cost of $80,000 per year to lock up a child, the U.S. spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention. The Justice Policy Institute estimates the long-term consequences of incarcerating young people could cost taxpayers $8 billion to $21 billion each year. New Mexico spends $74 million per year on supervision and services for youth in the system.

The rate of youth incarceration and spending wasn’t always so high. Throughout the 80s and 90s, politicians across the spectrum rallied votes by promising to be tough on crime. But, lawmakers failed to adequately distinguish between the transgressions of adults and the waywardness of youth. Juvenile systems built facilities that functioned like adult prisons. Youth were warehoused for longer sentences and rehabilitation was sidelined or suspended all together.

Fortunately, recent years have shown a move away from youth incarceration. States now realize that prisons do not reduce recidivism as effectively as other interventions. Prisons harm youth.

 

 

In April 2017, New Mexico received millions of dollars from the U.S. Justice Department to establish more appropriate, non-custodial, responses to parole violations. This will have real world effects. For example, had David’s parole violations occurred under these new rules, he would not have been in and out of prison more than ten times since 2011.

The number of youth now referred to the juvenile justice system is 50% lower than in 2009. The number of youth in New Mexico on probation has declined by 55%. There are fewer youth in New Mexico’s juvenile justice system now than at any time in the last decade.

 

     

 

 

As well as helping the public see the connections between poverty, addiction and incarceration, Kosofsky’s work has helped the family see themselves.

“All these pictures, every one of them,” says David, “bring back these memories to everyone in my family. It reminds us of what dope has done. What incarceration has done. What we have lost. The last five years,” says David. “It’s a fall out for my family. Especially myself.”

 

 

In the past, Vinny has looked at David as a father figure. David views Vinny as the only person who appreciates him. But David’s repeated absence has strained their relationship. Vinny feels his brother has let himself and his family down.

“I see two brothers who love each other unconditionally but one brother wasn’t there when he needed him to be. The younger brother,“ says Vinny about himself, “had to become the more mature brother.”

Now 18, Vinny is married with a one-year-old daughter, Jordyn. He’s staying away from trouble in a way he wishes his older brother would.

“I have my job, I’m relied on and I’m still employed. As long as I have income, I can support my child. It has brought responsibility and adulthood.”

 

 

Every time David strays he feels guilt. He wouldn’t argue with Vinny about having let him down.

“When I think about the photos of me in jail,” reflects David, “I think of how I don’t realize my actions until I’ve already reacted. You regret a lot of things in jail. A lot of things that you can’t change.”

Throughout Kosofsky’s photos, family members drape over each other, they hold one another and hold each other up. They entwine and grasp as if to tap some collective energy. A sense of exhaustion is pervasive, but exhaustion is held at bay by the love and (literal) support of loved ones.

The years have conjured visual repetitions too. In a recent photo, Vinny cradles his baby in the same way Eve cradled him and his siblings years ago. Vinny now lays on a motel bed with his wife Krystle, just as he did with his brother during their closer, more vulnerable times, years past.

 

 

In play, in grooming, in rest, the family gravitates toward physical touch. Perhaps they do this because they know that prison, child protective services and the courts can deny, and have denied, them proximity to one another. The project may have started in a prison but has extended far beyond.

“It’s about a relationship of a family,” says Vinny.

Vinny and David was part of Juveniles In Prison, and After, an exhibition of Kosofsky’s work debuted at Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan, France, September 2nd-23rd. This Polka article was commissioned in response to the show.

Images from Vinny and David were shown on Capitol Hill when Senate Bill 1524, also known as The Dignity Act, was introduced to senate by Cory Booker (co-sponsored by senators Elizabeth Warren, Richard Durbin and Kamala Harris).

In October 2017, Kosofsky was awarded the Getty Images Instagram Grant.

 

The love affair between street photographers and New York City is rich, lucid, sometimes sordid and, seemingly, unbreakable. Images shot on the fly on the streets of the Big Apple form a significant part of the canon of photographic history — think Helen Levitt’s photos of kids at play, Weegee’s crime scenes crowds, Bruce Davidson’s subway, Jill Freedman’s brilliantly observed moments, Louis Mendes’ fifty-years of street portraits, and Jamel Shabazz’s polychromatic pictures of hip-hop culture. Perhaps the patina of time leads us to romanticize these bygone eras? Perhaps the stand of time between us and the fashions, hairstyles, automobiles and shop-fronts of yesteryear makes looking just simple, uncomplicated fun? Either way, Carrie Boretz’s work is wonderful.

 

 

Between 1975 and 1994, Boretz traversed NYC. From Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan, from Queens to the West Village, and from Harlem to Studio 54, Boretz sought out busy, public scenes that would turn viewers’ attention back toward the everyday wonder of everyday life.

Street: New York City — 70s, 80s, 90s is a book of 103 images from the New York boroughs. It’s an elegy to a time when the city was a bit rough and tumble.

“New York seems less interesting now and more sanitized,” says Boretz.

Carrie Boretz’s Street is published by PowerHouse Books.

Read and see more: These amazing street photos show 20 years of New York’s gritty glam era—through one woman’s eyes

 

 

       

 

 

Trump rages on about a broken America. America is raging about a broken Trump. Among the many memes and earworms the Whinger-In-Chief has provided, “American Carnage” is the one that sticks, for me. As long as Trump can convince his base that other people, other milieus and other communities are in carnage, his base will happily cede logic and allow the White House to enact its politics of division. As soon as Trump bellowed “American carnage” during his inauguration speech, the foreboding inevitability of a belligerent, smarting, testy, bickering presidency came to bear. Do images of social blight carry a different message under a fascistic executive?

Of his series Slow Blink, Open Mouth, Jordan Baumgarten says, With apparent lawlessness, chaos is inevitable. The world comes alive with bits of magic, bits of darkness, and the inability to discern which is which. In this world, private moments are public, animals and humans roam free, fueled by id, and always, somewhere, there is a fire burning.

 

While Slow Blink, Open Mouth is difficult for its content alone, it is also difficult because it might provide the ammunition for both sides of the political battle of rhetoric, fought from distance, over the health and feasibility of the nation. In We Look At The Same Photos, We See Different Things, published on Vantage, I investigate the difficulty inherent to images, in the Trump era, of addiction and social stress.

To quote:

When I view these images I think of failed manufacturing, job loss, modern alienation, big pharma pushing painkillers, crimes of need, and cycles of profit and predation that cannot, will not, be broken by the will power of addicts alone. I see the result of decades of inadequate public education, mental and medical health care and viable addiction treatment. I see the legacy of the failed War On Drugs, mass incarceration, and policy and policing that has criminalised poverty. I see the cracks in society through which individuals have fallen and I know the cracks used to be smaller, and fewer and farther between.

I do not discount, however, the fact that others may see a society that’s lost its way; a society that fell from grace decades ago and needs a short, sharp reset. I know viewers might reason they have nothing in common with Baumgarten’s subject(s) and are moved to do nothing but judge. Trump has fueled the aggressive judgement of others. Perversely, though he hasn’t done this by avoiding the topics of poverty and addiction. Instead, he’s pointed (from distance) to problems in inner-city America (Chicago being his preferred bogeyman) and yelled about carnage, wastelands and the opioid epidemic. Trump is correct in identifying the opioid epidemic as specific to our times, but he’s more invested in stoking dangerous rhetoric about *dangerous* cities than he is listening to, or implementing, nuanced policy and social care solutions.

 

 

Read and see more: We Look At The Same Photos, We See Different Things

Slow Blink Open Mouth will be published as a book by GOST. Please consider buying a print from the series to help support the production costs.

Follow Jordan Baumgarten on Tumblr and Instagram.

 

 

 

I just wrote about Christopher Herwig’s new book Soviet Bus Stops Volume II for Timeline: Photos: From Brutalism to folk art, Soviet-era bus stops crush the myth of Communist homogeneity:

In 1975, the Soviet Ministry of Transport Construction dictated that bus stops “should pay special attention to modern architectural design, in accordance with the climate and the local and national characteristics of the area. Bus stops should be the compositional centers of the architectural ensemble of the road.” But if the shells of these structures reflected governmental decree, their quirky inventiveness is the result of the mores of local artisans.

These remote bus stops are the little cousins to the monumental Communist construction projects — the high-rises, TV towers, space shuttles, and state-owned factories—most of us are familiar with. In his new book, Soviet Bus Stops Volume II, photographer Christopher Herwig examines the Soviet-era bus stop as an architectural type, where regional planners flexed their patriotic muscle and pushed artistic boundaries. These humble structures challenge the preconception of the Soviet landscape as blandly homogeneous.

“Some were made by famous architects and artists,” says Herwig. “Some were made by road construction workers and probably even decorated by school children or at least university students on summer break. Some are one-offs and some are repeated.”

The book is published by Fuel.

Read and see more.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

Prison Photography Archives

Post Categories

Advertisements