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“I would like to receive a photo of the new world trade centre buildings, in whatever stage of rebuilding they’re in. A nice view from a nearby building would be nice. Could the photographer take the photograph from a nearby rooftop?” Terrence’s request answered by Anthony Tafuro for Photo Requests From Solitary.

Author’s note: A little under two years ago, I was quite rattled by a new contribution to the ongoing Photo Requests From Solitary project. At the time, I thrashed out some ideas with colleague Gemma-Rose Turnbull, wrote a pointed response, and then let the essay vanish. I return to it here.

Photo Requests From Solitary (PRFS) is a collaborative project that uses art to illuminate the issue of long-term confinement in U.S. prisons. I’m a fan, but I felt that the 2015 collaboration between PRFS and Vice Magazine missed the mark. Since 2015, PRFS has fallen under the stewardship of Jeanine Oleson who has worked on its expansion in New York and California, partly during an artist residency at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. In May 2017, a new round of images made in response to requests from men and women in New York’s state prisons was exhibited at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, NY.

As far as I can tell, the 2015 Vice partnership and article and gallery (the focus of this essay) was the first, last and only time PRFS assigned the creation of images directly through a media outlet. I feel my arguments apply as well now as two years ago (not a lot of new PRFS material has been released). I wanted to tidy up my original essay and tweak it to reflect the moment now in mid-2017. I think the key inquiries below will always be critical to the assessment of the relevance and impact of Photo Requests From Solitary.

— Pete Brook, 10th July, 2017


DOES THE IMAGE MEET THE BRIEF?

Photo Requests From Solitary is one of the most imaginative, expansive and effective political art initiatives of recent decades. Launched in 2009, Photo Requests From Solitary (PRFS) was one project of many pursued by the grassroots activists Tamms Year Ten (TYT) in the campaign for the closure of the notorious Tamms Correctional Facility, Illinois; a facility purpose-built to house prisoners in extreme isolation.

The core concept of PRFS is disarmingly simple. TYT sent forms to men in solitary in Tamms. The form explained that they would make an image—real or imagined—for the prisoner to have in his cell. A prisoner could, in writing, describe an image, offer specific instructions, and return the form. TYT would then coordinate with outside artists to make each image and send a copy to the prisoner.

Founded in 2008, TYT employed multiple tactics to mobilize diverse constituents in the fight to abolish solitary confinement. I’ve followed TYT and PRFS since late 2011 when I met some of the organizing activists in Chicago. One of the impressive things about PRFS was that it was able to move adeptly between artistic and political spaces and it convincingly occupied both; its message and art moved to where it’d have most effect. As far as I know, PRFS collaboration with Vice Magazine’s “Prison Issue” (October 2015) was the first time images were made by a publication’s staffers and freelancers for the project.

When I heard about the partnership, I was curious, a little skeptical (I’ll admit) but mostly I was excited to see PRFS’s latest iteration.

Although PRFS was only one of TYT’s initiatives, it cannot be overstated how important PRFS was to the success of the group’s work. PRFS served both the needs of the men languishing in solitary confinement AND the needs of a public kept largely in the dark about the brutal conditions at Tamms Supermax. It provided an essential, constant and intriguing visual hook to TYT’s efforts; it kept the fight in the limelight. PRFS galvanized activists, forged solidarity with prisoners and kept the issue at the forefront of the public conscience. This three-birds-with-one-stone efficiency is the effectiveness to which socially engaged art projects aspire.

TYT worked closely with then-Governor Pat Quinn who, in 2012, proposed closing the facility. Tamms was shuttered in January 2013. (It needs to be noted that people in Illinois remain in solitary confinement in other wings of other facilities, but no longer is a facility designed solely for extreme sensory deprivation in operation in the Land Of Lincoln.)

That success did not spell obsolesce for PRFS, nor it’s radical methodology. People remained in solitary confinement in states across the U.S. In 2013, Tamms Year Ten partnered with Solitary Watch, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Parsons The New School, and the artist Jeanine Oleson to expand the project into New York and California. In September of 2013, with support from the Magnum Foundation and the Open Society Documentary Photography Project, Photo Requests From Solitary went on public view at Photoville in New York City.

Also in 2013, one of the founding artists of TYT, Laurie Jo Reynolds was awarded the Creative Time Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, and in 2014 Reynolds received an A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art. A new genre—Legislative Art—was defined so as to describe the artworks of TYT and those of the same ilk. Legislative Art involves unglamorous admin, spreadsheets and letter-writing as much as it does poetry, poster-making and marching. Legislative Art strategically and creatively engages with government systems, with the intent to secure concrete political change. For those who had always wondered if art could change society, TYT seemed to provide an answer. Ask the 200 men moved out of extreme isolation. Art had changed their worlds.

All this is to say, TYT and PRFS are worth constant applause. They are also worth constant attention. We should analyze closely what PRFS puts out because due to the collaborative and decentralized nature of the project, contributions and results will vary considerably. Crucial to the ongoing success of PRFS is care surrounding its core principles. All this to say, it is right to judge when and how contributing artists meet the prisoners’ requests.

In a closed call, Vice photo editor Elizabeth Renstrom invited photographers who work regularly for Vice to contribute — including Jason Altaan, Edward Cushenberry, Fryd Frydendahl, Michael Marcelle, Keisha Scarville, Molly Soda, Anthony Tafuro, Ole Tillmann, and Vice photo-editor-at-large Matt Leifheit.

“I hired a blend of new and old contributors that I felt would best carry out their assigned letters for the inmates. I did this to make sure specific requests were sure to be completed,” says Renstrom, who was largely responsible for all the photography in the 2015 Vice Prison Issue.

I think some contributors succeeded. I think some failed. I think a couple failed spectacularly. For the simple reason that they did not meet the specifics of the requests, Jason Altaan and Fryd Frydendahl failed.

Frydendahl was asked, by Sonny, to provide an image of “a woman with a smile that shines as bright as the sun. Not a model type but an ordinary woman who, perhaps, enjoys every moment of her life. Who is not biased or judgmental towards anyone but full of love and compassion for everyone and everything.”

“A face-shot of a woman with a smile that shines as bright as the sun. Not a model type but an ordinary woman who, perhaps, enjoys every moment of her life. Who is not biased or judgmental towards anyone but full of love and compassion for everyone & everything.” Sonny’s request answered by Fryd Frydendahl for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

Judge for yourselves, but I don’t think the girl flashes a smile, nor does it “shine as bright as the sun”. The only warmth to be found in this image is that inferred by the yellow haze of the filter. I wonder what Sonny thinks?

Altaan’s case is less cut and dry. In a literal sense, he did photograph “a female in black leather pants w/ the same material stitches but a different color like hot pink all which can define her figures [sic] w/ a setting of orange and blue in the sky posted up next to a Benz (powered blue) in a park. Black female with hazel eyes.” But it’s clear that Altaan was unable to divest of his trademark 80s, glamor sneer and style.

“I would like a female in black leather pants w/ the same material stitches but a different color like hot pink all which can define her figures w/ a setting of orange and blue in the sky posted up next to a Benz (powder blue) in a park. Black female w/ hazel eyes.” Dan’s request answered by Jason Altaan, for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

Even temporarily, Altann could not put down his soft-focus cynicism. As with his other portraiture, Altaan has managed to match his disdain for fashion-shoot-charade with his clear infatuation with the playfulness of said charade. The skill of Altaan’s work lies in paying homage to the palette and poses of yesteryear’s beauty while simultaneously mocking the consumption, then and now, of versions of beauty. I think Altaan’s work is smart. That he is able to mock the industry as he climbs its rungs deserves applause but I just don’t think his signature look was what Dan had in mind.

“Our hope is that some of the [magazine] issue’s visuals, generated by and for inmates, offer a better understanding of the vagaries of the confined,” writes Renstrom introducing the Vice feature. All well and good, but only if we can conclude that the contributor’s image tallies with the prisoner’s intent. It’s possible that the Prison Issue’s visuals might derail understanding too. Assessing the level of understanding among audience is a difficult task but we can look closely at the images and ask if they appear to serve the prisoner or if they appear to serve the photographer.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not interested in the cheap-and-easy dismissals of Vice we see so often. This article is not of that nature. Vice draws plenty of ire for its tone but, as I have said before, Vice looks to be shedding the snark of its fledgling years.

Regarding the Prison Issue generally: I am a fan. I was grateful to see Zora Murff’s Corrections featured because the growing use of electronic monitoring is a relatively ignored issue in criminal justice debates. I was equally pleased to see Renstrom’s interview with Mark Strandquist about his numerous projects that nurture more sympathetic views of people involved in the prison system. Indeed, Renstrom told me she actively tried to get away from images made by outsiders to the issue. She succeeded for the most part.

On the success of individual images: I admit, it’s difficult to argue with any degree of certainty that the creative output of an artist does or doesn’t meet the visual imagination of a prisoner. Especially, when the medium between them is a hundred-or-so words, a few hundred miles, and all sorts of demographic distinctions. In the cases of Altaan and Frydendahl, however, I think I can structure an argument because their images appear to be closer to their existing artistic signatures than they are to the words of Dan and Sonny.

Friend and colleague Gemma-Rose Turnbull agrees. A specialist in socially engaged methodologies, Turnbull is currently writing a PhD on co-authorship models in documentary photographic practice.

“What I think has happened here is that the artists have not always connected to the fact that the prisoner is the primary audience,” says Turnbull.

She’s right. Photo Requests From Solitary is about process as much as it is about product. PRFS prioritizes prisoners’ visual escape and the process toward realizing their escape means ego, rules and wider expectations must be actively set aside. Easy to say; not always easy to do. Artists pride themselves on individual act and independent vision. Yet, for PRFS, artists operate, effectively, as functionaries. Artists serve the prisoners and serve the politics of the project. What we have to understand is that PRFS is a communication project, not a photography project.

“Images, here,” says Turnbull, “are supposed to help prisoners transcend solitary. Help them feel like they are being heard.”

PRFS is necessarily complex in structure because it attempts to connect people who have been forcefully disconnected by institutions and discriminations. In the absence of common shared media, PRFS builds images out of, and around, the issue of solitary confinement from which we discern our social responsibility and agency. PRFS uses imagery—as a seemingly innocuous thing—so that we might rally around it. Knowing the power of images, though, we realize that this project has been anything but innocuous. It changed political course in Illinois. Described in these terms, PRFS is owned by us all. The longer PRFS exists and the wider it reaches the more shared its possession. In these terms, the insistent artist signatures of Altaan and Frydendahl are out of place.

Of course, sometimes, the artist can just miss the point entirely. Terrence asked for a photo of the new buildings replacing the World Trade Center, shot from a nearby rooftop. Instead, Anthony Tafuro made a picture of the 9/11 Memorial Pool (top image).

In the plus column, Keisha Scarville and Edward Cushenberry met their requests well, I thought.

An African American family at a Thanksgiving/Christmas Dinner, background of kids graduation, sweet sixteens, grandchildren being born, family reunion, birthdays, funerals, church attendance, aspects of a family tree. Grandparents, mother, father and sons and daughters, cousins, wives and husbands. To show/express the unity and growth of family when times are good and bad. I MISS MY FAMILY, BEING THERE FOR THEM. Keith’s request answered by Keisha Scarville, for Photo Requests From Solitary.

“Can the photograph be of my daughter ‘Daddy’s Angel’? Her name is ________ 3 years old.” Christopher’s request answered by Edward Cushenberry for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

I’m not singling out Altaan and Frydendahl so we can all just wag our fingers. I’d like this critique to be instructive. As PRFS moves onward to California, New York and potentially other states, it will not be under the guidance of one hand. Each participant is responsible for understanding the premium placed on service that is core to PRFS. Tamms Year Ten fought against a single facility, but CA and NY have dozens of secure housing units between them. PRFS must maintain prisoners as its primary audience. Those outside prison walls are the secondary audience. Don’t forget that.

“The pictures offer a new way to think about people in isolation,” writes Renstrom. She is correct.

“We don’t see,” Renstrom continues, “what prisoners see, but what they envision. Taken together, these requests provide an archive of the hopes, interests, and memories of people in the hole.”

Think of that for a moment. It is a huge responsibility for a loose cadre of artists to collectively paint the imaginations of hundreds of prisoners. The VICE feature was picked up by The Daily Mail (a right-leaning UK newspaper with a massive online footprint) and featured by an Illinois NPR affiliate. We can presume that each time PRFS puts out new images, they’ll circulate … and they’ll speak, to some degree, for prisoners. It’s an uncomfortable responsibility for a loose cadre of artists to collectively speak for hundreds of prisoners. Uncomfortable because no set of images can stand in for the experiences and thoughts of millions of Americans passing through locked facilities each year. Uncomfortable because we know images are slippery and we know the stakes are high for incarcerated individuals, their families and for anti-prison movements. Uncomfortable because inherent to the method of PRFS is the surrender of decision-making power to the artist and, frankly, we don’t want the artists to fuck up. We like artists and we like the resistance.

To be fair to the Vice contributors, their first introduction to PRFS probably differed to most before them. Renstrom emailed Vice contributors 2 or 3 weeks before the Prison Issue went to print. That email may have been the first time they had heard of the project? By comparison, in Illinois, there was a longer familiarity with the project; word-of-mouth and IRL interactions brought most contributors to the table. Some of those that conceived of the PRFS project made images too. Furthermore, publication of their images was implicit in Vice’s ask, so this may have appeared, and felt, like a standard assignment from a national publication. Altaan, Frydendahl and co. can be forgiven for not realizing that Vice readership is the secondary audience.

Despite my call to criticism here, I don’t want to discourage future collaborations between publications and the PRFS coalition of Parsons, Solitary Watch and TYT. As much as ever before, we need both PRFS’s empowering engagement across prison walls and we need alternative visual reference points for our understanding of the prison industrial complex.

“It’s really important to highlight and promote art activism so people aren’t constantly seeing the same type of photography surrounding prisoners,” says Renstrom. Hear, hear. It is precisely because I’m a huge fan of the open dialogue, the beautiful complications, the equity, and the shared responsibility that are central to PRFS’s methodology that I pay the project such close attention. PRFS cannot become a schtick. It cannot become cultural fodder. PRFS must remain rooted to its co-authorship intent. The photographers have to know they’re making work for the prisoner first, the rest of us second.

“The litmus test must be: Does the image meet the brief?” challenges Turnbull.

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Hopefully not so simple as to forget.

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Susan Stellin and Graham MacIndoe are raising money to fund the exhibition of their project American Exile at Photoville this autumn.

DONATE TO AMERICAN EXILE HERE

American Exile is a series of photographs and interviews documenting the stories of immigrants who have been ordered deported from the United States, as well as their family members – often, American citizens – who suffer the consequences of the harsh punishment and are sometimes forever separated from a parent or partner transported to foreign lands.

These are people who, ostensibly, have — just as you or I — lived, worked and paid taxes in the U.S. for extended periods. Bar fights that occurred 20 years ago, Visa paperwork deadlines missed, and other minor matters have sometimes led to deportation.

The tumorous growth America’s prison industrial complex goes back four decades whereas the focus of Graham and Susan’s work — the establishment of an extended archipelago of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities — is a much more recent, post 9/11 phenomenon. It is utterly contemporary and it meets the desperate need for journalism that probes ICE procedures.

DONATE TO AMERICAN EXILE HERE

MacIndoe spent five months in immigration detention in 2010, facing deportation because of a misdemeanor conviction – despite living in the U.S. as a legal permanent resident since 1999. After winning his case, he and Susan began gathering stories of families caught up in deportation proceedings, including asylum seekers, green card holders, and immigrants trapped in the bureaucracy of adjusting a visa.

I love Graham and Susan. They have a very comfortable couch. We’ve been friends for several years. Susan has a keen sense of justice and nous for a story and the will to bend an industry to our needs, not its. Graham is an addict who got clean, a street shooter, an artist, a great teacher (by all accounts) and a bit of a curmudgeon for all the right reasons.

DONATE TO AMERICAN EXILE HERE

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BIOGRAPHIES

Graham MacIndoe is a photographer and an adjunct professor of photography at Parsons The New School in New York City. Born in Scotland, he received a master’s degree in photography from the Royal College of Art in London and has shot editorial and advertising campaigns worldwide. He is represented by Little Big Man Gallery in Los Angeles, and his work is in many public and private collections. Follow Graham on Instagram and Twitter.

Susan Stellin has been a freelance reporter since 2000, contributing articles to The New York Times, New York, The Guardian, TheAtlantic.com and many other newspapers and magazines. She has worked as an editor at The New York Times and is a graduate of Stanford University.

In 2014, Susan and Graham were awarded a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation for their project, American Exile, and are collaborating on a joint memoir that will be published by Random House (Ballantine) in 2016.

DONATE TO AMERICAN EXILE HERE

I just published What’s a War-Torn African Nation Got To Do with Editing DNA?, a piece on Vantage about Wired Magazine’s choice of a Richard Mosse photograph Myths Of The Near Future (2012) for the cover of its August issue.

The photograph was made as part of Mosse’s series Infra about the ongoing civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the story is about the science behind– and the copyright battles over–Crispr-Cas9 a genetic engineering technique. The gulf between the original subject matter and the nature of the story raised some questions for me.

I must mention that, in light of 5.4 million deaths in DRC, the line “And the end of life as we know it” emblazoned in 48-font on the front cover, seems a little clumsy, but I’m too clueless about the magazine world for that to be my line of main inquiry. Someone else can muse over those loose words if they think there’s anything more in them than a disconnect between packaging and content typical of the marketplace.

[…]

Perhaps I am so discomfited because Mosse’s work makes so much more visual sense being bent ever-so-slightly for this futuristic narrative, than it does for its original intended political purpose?

Mosse pitched in on Twitter with the following three comments, they’re part of a longer back-and-forth with a couple of threads between Ed Brydon and I. Chase those threads if you can.

Read the full piece and see what you think.

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Dale Hammock at the Amity Foundation in Los Angeles. Credit Damon Casarez for The New York Times. From the story ‘You Just Got Out Of Prison. Now What?

True to form in traditional media another impressive feature piece about the criminal justice system You Just Got Out of Prison. Now What? was released by the New York Times last week. The story is summed up perfectly in the sub-header: “Carlos and Roby are two ex-convicts with a simple mission: picking up inmates on the day they’re released from prison and guiding them through a changed world.”

Carlos and Robery help people like Dale Hammock (above) who was imprisoned for 21 years to readjust to the outside world.

It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that this looming ‘‘prisoner re-entry crisis’’ became a fixation of sociologists and policy makers, generating a torrent of research, government programs, task forces, nonprofit initiatives and conferences now known as the ‘‘re-entry movement.’’ The movement tends to focus on solving structural problems, like providing housing, job training or drug treatment, but easily loses sight of the profound disorientation of the actual people being released. Often, the psychological turbulence of those first days or weeks is so debilitating that recently incarcerated people can’t even navigate public transportation; they’re too frightened of crowds, too intimidated or mystified by the transit cards that have replaced cash and tokens.

The quality of the photography met the quality of the writing. The two pictures accompanying the piece were made by Damon Casarez.

An unfamiliar name. I looked him up. This was great assigning by NYT. Throughout Casarez’s other bodies of work is something of the uncanny. From an early project depicting the “Utopia” of the suburb he grew up in (Clearly effected, he mentions “suburb” in his bio) to a series of actors playing out cliche types who live in his neighbourhood, it seems Casarez is obsessed with the weird around him.

Or more precisely he teases the weird out.

From the unnatural order of Boomerang Kids (children that return to parents’ home after college graduation) to a series titled Dioramas of recreations of peculiar vignettes in everyday life around him, Casarez channels Jennifer Karady, Holly Andres, early Gregory Crewdson, the vulgar Jill Greenberg, and David Lynch, (and, yeah, I guess, even Hopper).

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Everyone has been talking about Google’s neural network DeepDream recently saying that it might be the closest thing to what Androids dream of when they sleep or what pure (LSD-inflected) visuals look like. The world is a freaking bizarre place and it only because of inbuilt systems to filter most of it that our brains don’t get overrun.

Casarez’s work is so appealing to me because it bucks that tendency. He searches out the ill-fitting and garish surface tensions we put on, prop up and rely on daily.

It makes sense why the worlds of (predominantly) Southern California would weird him out. One day he’s photographing victims’ families of street violence, and the next the aspiring and upper classes basking in the arts-industrial complex.

As odd places, prisons do nothing if not produce odd behaviours and characters. Carlos and Roby have been out years but still fantasize about prison food. They are the sanest folks engaging with the prison issue because they see reentry from a personal and informed perspective .. and yet they sit for hours in their car under the words “Now what?” waiting for a man who’ll probably arrive. He does and their work begins.

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Roby So (left) and Carlos Cervantes in Pomona, California. Damon Casarez for The New York Times. From the story ‘You Just Got Out Of Prison. Now What?

For all the quantitative research, NGO white papers, expert testimony, politicians’ best intentions, it is still the one-one-one, face-to-face, simple and small things that make the biggest difference in getting people out and keeping people out. That might sound crazy but it is not; it’s true. For example, the Prisoner Reentry Network does something as simple as send directions to prisoners pre-release so that they know how to get from the prison gate to the their hometown. Having not navigated the free world for years or decades that’s key information the rest of us take for granted.

No one has experimented so perversely with prisons as California. The unexpected details, the frank reporting and the NYT’s choice of photographer all worked well together here and described an unnatural situation and set of problems to which committed folks are trying to find solutions.

Follow Damon Casarez on Tumblr and Instagram.

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