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For its seventh and final stop, Prison Obscura will be on show at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon from April 1 to May 28.
I’ll be at Newspace for the opening next Friday night, April 1, 6–8pm. I’ll be installing Wednesday and Thursday so stop by and say hello.
Also, on the Saturday afternoon I’m moderating a panel titled Can Images Counter Mass Incarceration? with some of my favourite artists and thinkers. Here’s the Facebook event page and see bolded events’ details below.
THE BLURB (AGAIN)
No country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. More than 2.2 million people are currently locked up in the U.S.—a number that has more than quadrupled since 1980. But sadly, the lives lived behind bars are all too often invisible to those on the outside. Prison Obscura sheds light on such experiences and the prison-industrial complex as a whole by showcasing rarely seen surveillance, evidentiary, and prisoner-made photographs. The exhibition encourages visitors to ask why tax-paying, prison-funding citizens rarely get the chance to see such images, and what roles such pictures play for those within the system.
Alyse Emdur’s prison visiting room portraits from across the nation and 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. The exhibition moves between these intimate portrayals of life within the prison system to more expansive views of legal and spatial surveillance in Josh Begley’s manipulation of Google Maps’ API code and Paul Rucker’s animated video. 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.
Prison Obscura is made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.
In conjunction with the exhibition, Newspace is hosting a series of events related to the prison industrial complex and the role images play in exposing the structures of the U.S. criminal justice system.
OFFSITE Panel discussion: Can Images Counter Mass Incarceration? Saturday April 2, 2-4pm: Panelists Lorenzo Triburgo, Sarah-Jasmine Calvetti and Barry Sanders. Moderated by me. OFFSITE Location: Native American Student and Community Center, Portland State University (710 SW Jackson St). Sponsored by Portland State University Camera Arts Society.
Discussion: Re-Envisioning Justice: What Is Between Reform and Abolition of the Criminal Justice System?: Sunday, April 24, 4-6pm. At Newspace (1632 SE 10th Ave.)
Community Discussion: The Ethics of Photography: Thursday, May 12, 6:30-8pm, organized in collaboration with the Oregon Jewish Museum. At Newspace (1632 SE 10th Ave.)
All public programs are free, open to the public. Please note event location.
Expanding Photography: Discovering the Stories Behind Your Work: May 9 – May 23, 6:30 -9:30 pm | Instructor: Gregory Parra.
Education Lecture Series: The Screen Politics of Public Projections: May 17, 7:00 – 8:30pm | Instructor: Dr. Abigail Susik.
Build Your Own Pinhole Camera: June 5, 12:00-4:00pm | Instructor: Pete Gomena.
INFO + HOURS
Newspace Center for Photography, 1632 SE 10th Ave, Portland, OR 97214
Mon–Thurs 10am-9:30pm; Fri–Sun 10am-6pm
For press inquiries, contact Newspace Curator Yaelle S. Amir at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503.963.1935.
In modernizing institutions, new laws to permit intimate partner visits for prisoners were established. Cosmin Bumbuţ visited every penitentiary in Romania and photographed the boudoirs.
We’re obsessed with sex as much as we’re shy to talk about it open and honestly. We’re fascinated by prisons, particularly fictionalized accounts of prisons (Oz, Animal Factory, Shawshank, Orange Is The New Black, The Green Mile, the list goes on-and-on) but often our fascination doesn’t extend far enough to talk openly about what our prisons actually are and how they’re a symptom of a divided, racist, unforgiving social order. We’ve still a lot to unpack around prisons. Around sex too, we’re picky about what and where we unpack. I say this to acknowledge the fact that this is an article about sex, and prisons, and sex in prisons and those are fiery catalysts to the imagination. Be honest, you’re here because of the headline and you’re wondering whether to read these 1,300 words or just scroll through the pictures.
Fortunately, for us, these pictures, made by Romanian photographer Cosmin Bumbuţ (who is also one half of Teleleu.eu), sate our outsider curiosity without dragging us into a debased voyeuristic quagmire.
The series, titled Camera Intima, is expertly shot with phenomenal manipulation of space and lenses to secure these angles. Despite some of these rooms being converted basement store-rooms, the photos are well-lit and flooding with joyous color and pattern. Perhaps you enter this photo essay — and these rooms — expecting cheap gags, but you exit with a rounded and informed perspective on a type of room designed to meet 21st century policy, to ensure dignity and to bolster family relationships.
“In 2007, Romania joined the European Union,” explains Bumbuţ. “The whole prison system went through major revamp and the biggest reform was to introduce the right to private visits.”
Simply put, the price for entry into Europe’s *modern* club was to allow previously-forgotten and despised convicts to get it on with their loved ones. Married prisoners and those in long term relationships have the right to one 2-hour private visit, every three months.
“Plus, if a prisoner gets married in detention he or she can spend 48 hours with the spouse in the special room and is allowed visits once a month in the first year of marriage,” explains Bumbuţ.
It’s obvious to say that these conjugal visit rooms are for sex. But it’s worth noting they are intended only for sex. In the United States, by comparison, conjugal visit trailers and designated rooms are set aside for the whole family. In these Romanian rooms, the only visitors are intimate partners but in the United States the purpose of family visits is broadened beyond just sex. Prisoners spend time with their children, siblings and parents; trailer visits are meant to strengthen family bonds throughout the entire clan. As such, US trailers have kitchens, dining and common areas.
In Bumbuţ’s photos we see mostly, just the beds. For all their undeniably functional design for the carnal, these rooms are rather underwhelming. At its root, this photo essay could be of cheap motel rooms; they share the same essential elements — TV, mini-fridge, the occasional soft furnishing, nasty carpet and a sign or two reminding occupants of rules. The picture that these are prison rooms is Bumbuţ’s image of the cover page of the ‘Intimate Room’ handbook.
Between 2013 and 2014, Bumbuţ photographed the “private rooms” in all 40 Romanian penitentiaries. “I think I can boast of being the only civilian who entered all the Romanian prisons,” he says.
It wasn’t a project that came out of the blue. Back in 2009, he facilitated a photo workshop for women prisoners in Târgșor Penitentiary (more about that here). Soon after that he embarked on a multiyear project documenting life in the notorious Aiud Penitentiary. He witnessed a creaking and unsanitary lock-up trying to clean up and drag itself into the 21st century.
“In 2005, Aiud looked like a prison from the Communist era. Rooms were dirty and the walls unpainted, the cells were very small and crowded,” says Bumbuţ. “In 2008, it was renovated and the cells were expanded, the prisoners didn’t wear uniforms and were referred to as ‘Persons deprived of liberty’! Romanian prisons started to look like the ones from the American movies, with white walls and new metal shiny doors.”
Even though prisoners are still handcuffed, Bumbut has, since 2008, been prohibited from photographing cuffed prisoners. Now it’s about image as much as it is about policy. When Bumbuţ first made his request to the National Prison Administration to photograph the conjugal visit rooms, he received quick approval and thanks for his dedication and help to the prison administration programs. Bumbuţ became well practiced at working in prisons. He reduced his equipment to a camera, a lens, a spare SD card and a spare battery to get through security checks as quick as was possible (often not quick at all).
The photographer’s good-standing all changed upon the release of his book Bumbata, an anthology of his best photographs from four years of shooting in Aiud Penitentiary. (Bumbuţ and I had an extended conversation about Bumbata in 2013).
The book was considered to gritty and perhaps, even, too sympathetic to the prisoners. Either way, it was seen as a damaging depiction. From there-on out, Bumbuţ was light on his feet and diplomatic. His access was never withdrawn.
The pregnant pause within these rooms is what gives Camera Intima strength as an body of work. We look at the photographs and they ignite our imaginations about what goes on inside. When the door is open — and we and the photographer peer in — there’s nothing to see. What goes on behind closed doors will never be photographed. This tension is characteristic of good photographic series that insert themselves into the relationships of public/private space and personal/institutional power.
“Prisoners are allowed officially to have sex inside an institution, but they have to follow all the bureaucratic steps,” explains Bumbuţ, “to write a request, to wait for the approval, to obey the rules.”
Guards and the administration hold the promise of access to the rooms as a carrot to motivate prisoners toward good behavior.
“Only prisoners who behave in prison are allowed to have private visits,” says Bumbuţ. “Prisoners are more obedient when they have access to the intimate rooms.”
Similarly, in the U.S., conjugal visits are seen as a very effective way to maintain prisoners’ complicity, even docility. Not all U.S. prisoners enjoy regular time with their family or intimate partners. All conjugal visits are banned within the Federal system and while states are left to rule on their own prison policies, only four — California, Connecticut, New York and Washington — currently allow trailer visits. In 2014, both Mississippi and New Mexico summarily ended their conjugal visit programs.
Sometimes these decisions will be couched in language about security but more often than not the decision rests upon public opinion (outrage), the moral judgements of the administration in power and probably the bottom line. It’s cheaper to keep men and women locked in boxes than it is to provide programming.
Back in Romania, it doesn’t matter what system or prison you’re in, your right to have conjugal visits is protected by law. And Bumbuţ was in many prisons when these visits took place. For a while he toyed with the idea of making portraits of prisoners and visitors.
“I even shot a couple before and after their private visit,” says Bumbuţ. “But when I looked at the portrait, I realised that it became too much about the couple and not about the intimate room.”
Bumbuţ wanted to spark our curiosity. He wanted to focus on the space and all the emotions, release, frustrations, love and contained freedom they embody.
Even though these rooms allow two humans to come together, they’re not places about individuals or individuality. They’re function spaces for the continuance of criminal justice policy. We know that given the choice, no-one would want to opt for these converted cells, cramped quarters or side-thought accommodations for their sexy time. No, Bumbuţ’s photographs are all about the denial of comfort and personal circumstance. These are compromise spaces. They’re about making do as much as they are about making out and they reveal carceral logic itself.
“So I decided to shoot the empty rooms.”
If you’re still with my these 1,300 words later, I’m glad you stayed the course and I hope I’ve convinced you that these images are more than visual one-liners. That, in fact, by photographing in every Romanian prison — 40 in total — Bumbuţ has created a unique, complete and priceless sociological survey. These four walls are the fulcrum between Romanian rule-of-law and the European Union compact; they’re the pivot of negotiation between prison and prisoner; and, of course, they’re containers for sexual expression between prisoners and loved ones. Ultimately, the rooms are the physical manifestation of contradiction.
“These are spaces for intimacy,” concludes Bumbuţ. “But, at the same time, the prison itself denies almost all desperately needed intimacy.”
In recent years, Cosmin Bumbuț and journalist Elena Stancu have traveled through Romania in an RV telling stories about today Romania, marginal communities and extraordinary people. They are Teleleu.eu. Follow Bumbuț and Stancu at the Teleleu.eu website and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
￼￼Liquidation Sale VII, 2000. ￼Mitch Epstein ￼￼New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana II, 2005. ￼Mitch Epstein
After six months of media pantomime and make-America-proud electioneering, the U.S. presidential scrap finally kicked off last night. At last, we got to the beginning of the start of the business end of choosing the candidates who are to duke it out in November.
The Iowa Caucuses threw up some winners and some losers, but I was most interested in how the billionaire Trump bombed and how avowed Socialist Bernie Sanders went toe-to-toe with the SuperPAC-fuelled Hillary machine.
Strangely, early in the races, news commentary threw Trump and Sanders in together as outsiders and insurgents. They both represented challenges to political orthodoxy. Bernie adheres to the principles of leftie politics; he’s almost by-the-book socialist. A pure version of the left. (Whether Trump is the pure version of rightwing politics, I’ll leave to others to debate. He does seems to have taken conservatives’ hatred to it’s extreme.)
Presidential campaigns invariably come down to economics and 2016 has proved no different. The United States is more than seven years on from the Great Recession and yet still wealth disparity is at the forefront of political debate. Either we (oil) barrel our way out of economic malaise hoping that everyone wins a piece of the wealth-pie or we seek to tax the United States’ gradually growing economy to redistribute the wealth.
Iowa was fascinating because it was the first taste of how voters think about daring approaches to national fiscal management. Trump, an anti-establishment bully of capitalism, lost out in the Hawkeye State whereas Sanders, the optimistic, social program-loving senator held his own.
In this moment, we must remember that the term “The 1%” did not exist in public lexicon before the Occupy Movement.￼￼￼ Sanders resonated because he faces the economic facts. We know the economic gap is larger than ever before. What’s this got to do with photography? Well, depicting economic forces and inequality is no easy task. Not one image can do it, but perhaps a collection can. No collection does it better than Myles Little’s 1%: Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality.
In a follow up to my article Photos of the 1% and the Interests They Protect and to mark the occasion of Lyttle’s exhibition making it to book, I have shared Geoff Dyer’s introductory essay on Vantage.
This resilience [as read in Lange and Evans’ photographs] was easily incorporated into the ideology of ceaseless endeavour that continues to underpin the system of exploitation that condemned them to destitution in the first place. It’s just that now, instead of loading up your jalopy and heading for California, you take a second, badly paid job; The Grapes of Wrath has turned into Nickel and Dimed. The iconic photographs of the Great Depression, meanwhile, have acquired a kind of stonewashed glamour.
Read the piece in full: Geoff Dyer on Globalization, Inequality and Photography
￼￼Refugees arriving on Kos, Greece, in August 2015. ￼Jörg Brüggemann—OSTKREUZ ￼
Untitled #5, from Hedge. 2010. Nina Berman—NOOR
￼Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Monte Carlo, Monaco. 2009. David Leventi
Untitled #IV, Mine Security, North Mara Gold Mine, Tanzania. 2011. David Chancellor
Chrysler 300. 2007. Floto+Warner ￼￼
A chef from a nearby luxury lodge waits for his guests to arrive from a hot air balloon excursion before serving them champagne in the middle of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. 2012. Guillaume Bonn—INSTITUTE
Tong, aged twenty-nine, poses for her wedding pictures at Princess Studio, a wedding photo studio in Shanghai, China. 2013. Guillaume Herbaut—INSTITUTE ￼￼
￼Jeff Koons, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. 2012. Henk Wildschut
Cole Haan, Chicago, IL, 2013. Brian Ulrich
Looking East Over Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots, Black Mountain Beyond, Henderson, NV. ￼2010. ￼Michael Light
Rivoli Theater, Berkeley, CA, 2013. Opened as a cinema and performance space in 1925, closed in the nineteen-fifties. Subsequently used by various supermarkets. Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre ￼
￼A twenty-five-year-old British man in London undergoes surgery to reduce the size of his nose. 2011. Zed Nelson
￼Residents, Vaalkoppies (Beaufort West Rubbish Dump), 2006. Mikhael Subotzky, courtesy Goodman Gallery
Before Christmas, I mentioned that Zora Murff‘s first photobook Corrections–published by Ain’t Bad Editions–was out. I was invited to write the introduction essay. Murff and I agreed that it’d be nice to share the essay with some images here on the blog.
The title of the essay “Off Paper” comes from a common phrase used by many of the children with whom Murff worked. It refers to the time when they will no longer be supervised, monitored, checked, tested or on probation. I thought it interesting that they describe paper documents as the form that control takes. Especially as it is networked, electronic, digital devices that are increasingly used to maintain the day-to-day control over their activities.
Paradoxically, Murff has tried to describe the children’s experiences and individuality beyond the formless, GPS surveillance, the case number and the rules under which each lives. Murff has used photography–and specifically the photobook–to do that. He has put them on paper. Unlike legal paper, the paper of art is non-binding and possibly more sympathetic.
The kids hope they are only temporarily on paper, in the legal sense, but Murff’s book locks them permanently in. And on.
Scroll down for the essay.
“My therapist said that I’m a criminal because I think like a criminal. She’s wrong. I’ve just made some bad choices when I’m in the moment. It doesn’t mean I’m not capable of doing right.”
– A youth in the Linn County Juvenile Detention & Diversion Services system.
The extreme cruelties and systemic failures of the United States’ brutal prisons are, at this point, well known. Far from being a solution, mass incarceration in America has exacerbated profound social problems, widened the gap between the haves and have-nots and set generations back. We’re starting to accept these truths and admit our collective mistakes. We’re starting to think less-and-less of prisons as institutions that solve the behaviors and social dynamics that lead to the state’s need to control; we’re starting to identify them as the problem. Across the country, prisons and detention are now considered a last resort for the disciplining of children.
As criminal justice agencies employ community supervision more and more, monitoring systems are used more and more. James Kilgore — academic, activist and a man who was once electronically monitored — has described ankle bracelets as “going viral in the criminal justice system.”
In 2005, 120,000 people wore electronic monitoring ankle bracelets; in 2012, the figure was 200,000; and in 2015, we can assume the figure has grown further still. Proportionally, within the 7 million people under correctional supervision in the United States, a larger percentage of youth wear monitoring devices than adults.
Imprisonment is known to negatively impact young minds and bodies far more severely than those of adults and current policy — and carceral logic — deem ankle bracelets a palatable, convenient and more humane alternative. There are some blind-spots to this logic.
Corrections comes at a crucial moment. Electronic monitoring (EM) has come into its own in the age of GPS. Faster, more accurate and more reliable than previously-used radio-based devices, GPS technologies provide the state agencies responsible for managing sentenced and pre-trial citizens with the rhetoric of control, the vision of the future and assurances to the public of total security.
EM is presented as a more humane, productive and progressive means of social control. Companies such as iSecure Trac, Secure Alert, Pro Tech, GEO and Omnilink which manufacture ankle bracelets also talk up the cost savings to their state clients.
All this to say, that this moment, in which we as a society are turning ever more faithfully to electronic monitoring, is not based solely on enlightened policy based upon supposed enlightened morals and the prioritization of the humane. No, it is based in large part to salesmanship in growth industries and the rhetorical promise of redemption through technology.
Corrections is an opportunity to reflect upon what is means to rely on widespread, diffuse and near total surveillance to correct antisocial behaviors. Furthermore, it is an opportunity to interrogate the outcomes of such surveillance upon larger society and the problems GPS-powered panopticism purports to address. Do ankle bracelets prevent criminal acts? Does EM propel, distract or compliment our investment in educational, economic and healthcare systems–systems we know improve citizens and reduce anti-social behaviors?
While many of the recent headlines about juvenile justice reform have focused on New York State, California and the South, ankle bracelets are utilized nationwide. It is fitting that Corrections emerges from Iowa, the heartland of America. The young men and women in Murff’s photographs are ordinary children, just like all children are ordinary. And yet, we have a propensity to think of urgent debates about the social contract we share as being those centered around the big cities. GPS tracks kids the same in the Midwest as it does in urban cores; it “knows” geography but does not adhere to our regional stereotypes. Corrections, in its modest way, puts the debate about electronic monitoring of youth into all our communities.
Helping children to modify and understand their behavior is a vital task — a fact Murff acknowledges. Ask any of the teens he monitored and they’d say they were happier being out in the community than locked up. Murff grew close to many of the children through face-to-face contact with youths on a regular basis. He talks of “watching the youths grow throughout the probation process.” But that does not mean that all the teens evaluate their monitoring as fair or right. Having a clunky box strapped to ones leg can hamper ones feeling of freedom just as much as being locked within a box. This tension–this constant to-and-fro about the costs and benefits of EM–is what informs Murff’s photographs, and his images provide some avenues to explore the tension.
The kids in Corrections are anything but armed and dangerous. The portraits came out of collaboration, discussion and sometimes accident. The evasive gesture and posturing of anonymous subjects is, for me, less a metaphor for the youths’ prior furtive behavior, but more a metaphor for our collective unknowing of the mechanism of the monitoring systems that we fund in order that they might inhabit them.
If the portraiture in Corrections is artful and poetic, then the studies of objects are pure documentary. Images of standard-issue deodorant, case files, uniforms, bracelets and other accouterments remind us of the regime and remind us of the industries behind it.
A youth writes “I have what I need to be fine,” on a self-assessment form and reminds us of the gulf, often, between what a child in crisis needs and what a caring society might be able to provide. It puts us right there. In tension. By contrast, a beautiful sun-dappled portrait of a youth seems so very far removed from the contested system and its narratives. Until you notice the ankle bracelet.
(But) seeing the system and understanding the system are not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, the ability to see is a great privilege. GPS “sees” relentlessly. Can Corrections help us understand the psychology and control at play as well as EM purports to understand the needs of youth and community?
Some of Murff’s images fill our gaps in knowledge; others inhabit blind spots in our collective understanding of a legally protected arena. What we learn, mostly, from Corrections is that we’ve more to know about how we’re helping troubled kids. We know that we’re using electronic monitoring more readily. How far will we proceed with this brave, new technology? Some Texas school districts, which include a large number of black and latino students, have expanded the use of EM for kids with histories of excessive truancy.
What does Murff’s documentation of fracture and healing from Iowa tell us about this very 21st Century practice? What is this version of freedom and control? Do we accept it?
One afternoon, Murff was sat in the bedroom of a young man for whom he was responsible for monitoring. The teen was playing his guitar and Murff was making a photograph. Then, a friend of the teen came to the bedroom window. He was confused by Murff, his camera, and the scene before him. Without missing a beat, the teen told his friend that he had just been signed to a record label and that Murff was from Rolling Stone Magazine.
I end with this anecdote because the teen, in spite of his circumstances, was witty and present. And he had agency. Lighthearted moments are harder to come by when people are implicated in the criminal justice system. Corrections is a serious body of work about a serious project, but it has been built on years of very personal interactions. For the protection of the youths, all of Murff’s subjects remain anonymous but that doesn’t mean they are distant.
What we think today affects what we do tomorrow. As you leaf through these pages, think about how you would feel as a kid under monitoring, think about your current attitudes about “delinquent” kids, and think about if those can change. Think about these things today because, certainly, there’ll be more electronic monitoring devices tomorrow.
CORRECTIONS THE BOOK
Title: Corrections, 2015
Size: 9.75 x 7.75 in
Page Count: 80 pages, 40 images
Publisher: Aint-Bad Editions
Edition Size: 450, signed and numbered
Print: 8×10 signed and numbered edition of 50
Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins, from the series Supplication
Bit of housekeeping folks! I need to let you know three things about Prison Obscura:
- Prison Obscura is going to Washington State.
- Prison Obscura is going to Oregon.
- Prison Obscura will be retired in June, 2016.
The exhibition opens at Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington this Thursday, January 16th, from 4pm-6pm. I’ll be there giving a curator’s talk.
Prison Obscura Installation in progress, Evergreen State College.
The show is up January 14 – March 2 at Evergreen Gallery, Library 2204, Evergreen State College, 98505 (Google Map)
Mark your calendars waaaaaaay in advance for the opening reception 6-9pm on Friday, April 1st (no joke). I’ll be in Portland all weekend, giving a curator’s talk at the opening and then convening with others for events and panels.
1632 SE 10th Ave., Portland, OR 97214. (Google Map)
Supplication #4, Landscape. From the series ’Supplication.’ “The Pryor Mountains. It is so special to me because I am from Pryor and I miss home. Castlerock at sunset.” Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins.
Supplication #4, Landscape. From the series ’Supplication.’ “The Pryor Mountains. It is so special to me because I am from Pryor and I miss home. Castlerock at sunset.” Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins.
RETIRING ‘PRISON OBSCURA’
To say that the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford had never travelled a show before, they–namely Matthew Callinan–have done a magnificent and utterly-indispensible job in administering Prison Obscura over what will be seven venues.
I didn’t know exactly what was involved in traveling a show such as this and I’m so so grateful that Callinan had the support of his peers at Haverford College to produce an exhibition that could stretch beyond Philadelphia where it all began. We learnt together.
It’s been a great run. After Olympia and Portland though, it’s time to say goodbye. I celebrate Prison Obscura‘s unexpected and gratifying success, but I know that after 2-and-a-half years, it’s time to move energies on to other things. I need to step back and to think about what next, if anything, is appropriate for a prison-based exhibition.
There are massive amounts of vital work and organizing being done around prison activism, policing, power and community-empowerment. I’d like to learn more; take the time to hear and see. Observe and act more; perhaps talk and type less–for a while, at least.
No doubt, I’ll have more to say when Prison Obscura wraps up in Portland, the final show, toward the end of May. For now, I hope that if you are in the Pacific Northwest you’ll be able to check out the show and engage with the ideas its artists propose. Thanks to Alyse Emdur, Robert Gumpert, Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist, Kristen S. Wilkins, Josh Begley and Paul Rucker and the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the men of the Restorative Justice Project at Graterford Prison.
David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series ‘Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).’ Photo: Anonymous, courtesy of Alyse Emdur.
© Kate Peters
Here we are at the end of the first week of 2016. How’s it going so far? I spent the holidays lying in, reading stuff and watching my team Liverpool at silly hours of the morning. When at my desk, I was putting together a series of year end proclamations for Vantage.
It was a marathon, and by marathon I mean a six-parter. Still, that was more than 10,000 words and scores of images.
Part 1: The Best Nature Photos of 2015
Part 2: The Best Photobooks of 2015
Part 3: The Best San Francisco Street Photographer of 2015
Part 4: The Best Portraiture of 2015
Part 5: The Best GIFs of 2015
Part 6: The Best Photography Exhibition of 2015
Are these actually the best of the year? Are these the most watertight objective statements? Of course not, and I admit as much in the pieces. What they are though is my strongest arguments as to why these projects and ideas are more relevant, caring (even), fruitful and connecting.
Put your feet up. Have a glance.
© Thomas Roma
© Alan Powdrill
© Troy Holden
© Suzanne Opton
© Thomas Roma
© Vicente Paredes
Book cover of Vicente Paredes’ Pony Congo
© Brandon Tauszik
© Sara Terry + Mariam X
© Troy Holden
Alonso Castillo is a freelance photographer based in the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico. Predominantly, he works as a stringer for Reuters. Most of his work focuses on the border and he is a specialist in reporting on migration and social issues. He has instructed workshops in the past, is a college teacher and, since 2009, has worked as an editor at www.numerof.org.
Mauricio Palos, a mutual friend of Castillo and I, contacted me to tell me of Castillo’s 2013 photography workshop in a local youth prison, the Instituto de Tratamiento y de Aplicación de Medidas para Adolescentes (ITAMA) which is in the city of Hermosillo, in Sonora, northwestern México.
ITAMA houses approximately 450 boys and men. All the prisoners were convicted as juveniles but currently 70% of the prisoners are adults as they’ve turned 18 during their incarceration. Castillo led a photography workshop with 10 boys aged between 15 and 21. When he sent me the photographs I was floored by how sparse and rudimentary the environment for these kids appeared. I wondered if this was a case in which, more so than others, the camera didn’t lie?
All these photographs were made by the 10 participants. Castillo and his colleagues only made technical recommendations in order for the boys to take advantage of available light and framing. “The boys decided how to work and what to photograph,” says Castillo.
Kindly, Castillo answered some questions about the project to accompany this exclusive showing of the juvenile prisoners’ photographs.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Did you find prisons/social justice first? Or did you find photography first?
Alonso Castillo (AC): It is hard to say, I come first of photojournalism but this area is combined with social justice; that is, I do believe that our work is for the other. In this case this two territories are combined with an equal third one that is working with young people who have committed crimes.
Anyway, due to my job, I suppose I found photography first.
Alonso Castillo and his students in the middle of a workshop session.
PP: What gave you the idea to do a workshop in the prison?
AC: I’ve taught, and participated in, workshops before—in Mexico, Cuba, El Salvador, Ecuador and Colombia. I try to make workshops part of broader and more complete projects of research into specific topics, or provide media training, or instruct on the practices of street journalism.
I knew a writer, Carlos Sanchez, who taught literature and creative writing at ITAMA. Together, we planned to work with young prisoners and teach photography. Carlos usually facilitates writing workshops so this was the first in which we worked with photography. For me, as a journalist and teacher, it was also a means to research and observe [the prison]. And the way things worked out, it was a very enjoyable observation.
PP: How did you get access?
AC: The workshop was organized in conjunction with Fotoseptiembre an annual photography festival which recently celebrated its 25th year anniversary. Although Fotoseptembiere no longer takes place in all countries, it still exists in the city where I live. The festival served as a pretext to get authorization and work with these guys as part of a program that also included an exhibition to show the end results.
PP: How long was the course?
AC: It lasted about 40 hours but we sometimes relaxed the formal schedule to adjust to the schedule of the boys or what was needed to complete the exercises. It is more accurate to say that we worked during the months of July and August 2013, and mounted a small exhibition in September. First we worked in the classroom with classes on theory; we saw some portfolios and documentary photography and we talked with the group and watched movies about photography. Later, disposable film cameras were given to each participant.
Participants were ten young people from five cities in central, northern and southern Sonora. Some of them came from the border municipalities for drug trafficking and murder.
The first exercise was carried out, then the cameras were processed and together we reviewed the work they had done. Then they were given yet another camera and had a chance to improve the ways they were seeing.
Much of the discussion topic was “everyday life”—their daily lives within ITAMA.
PP: What was the aim of the course?
AC: We wanted to share with them tools and skills to help with their rehabilitation and reintegration; they could acquire knowledge and then approach a job when they finished their detention. We also wanted to give them occupational therapy during their time inside the ITAMA.
As we move forward in the activities it became a very human exchange of experiences between us and them, in which analyzed and talked topics of art, history, music, cultural references and social problems.
The photography and talk about photographs was as a part of healing.
PP: Did you achieve the aims?
AC: It is difficult to know if what we did at that time will serve for something when they came out, which was an important part. With what happened in the classroom, yes, I am satisfied.
While in detention because they committed crimes (and some of them very serious), it was very emotional to reveal their “other faces”, the other sides to these young people.
AC: Although criminals, they remain children. This plain fact is something that the system ignores or cannot sufficiently deal with. All these boys are in the middle of a long learning process and maturation; they experience the same intangible fears as any of us. It is a matter of influencing the values and beliefs they have, rather than corrective measures and punishments.
There are also other related matters. The environment has a very strong and decisive weight. These facilities provide for the operation of organized crime on the streets and in the offices of government. Rehabilitation doesn’t work if the institution operates in the midst of corruption. The Mexican political system besides not favoring conditions for social security and education, seems to be working to do otherwise.
PP: Any unexpected surprises?
AC: They showed huge interest in the workshop, which very often does not happen when you’re outside teaching boys in the regular education system and even in college. It is sad but sometimes you find more resistance in a student who had better educational opportunities. With this group, everything happened in an easy way.
There was a boy with a natural look, he made some of the best photos of the workshop; he had a sophisticated way of seeing that gave the images a very contemporary look.
That happens sometimes in the workshops: anyone can worry so much about making a picture look easy and then someone comes in and just do it.
PP: Anything you’d want to do differently if you wanted to/could teach another prison photography workshop?
AC: Of course. Working on more personalized projects. The conditions are limited but we could work with them in a better recognition of the environment. Projects could be designed for collective or personal response — online journals, a newspaper produced by themselves, and so on.
PP: Why did the prison authorities let you in?
AC: I think they did not take us seriously to consider us as a threat, except for us to fulfill the security conditions such as the introduction of dangerous objects or not allowed.
PP: Had you been in a prison before? What did you expect to find? What did you find?
AC: Yes, I had been before taking pictures for a story. The access we now had was restricted only to the area to teach the workshop, so we only saw facilities from afar … and in photographs!
PP: What were the boys’ reactions? How did they work?
AC: The first reaction kept at a distance but then it broke. There were different profiles and even some involving more than others, empathy was virtually total. Then we work with maximum freedom. Sure, they are young and at some point they laughed at us but at no time was any kind of rejection or problem.
AC: After the workshop we had a very modest exhibition in the courtyards of ITAMA, with some family and other visitors. When we worked on that, we processed some film close to the date and we found a picture of the soles of the boys feet. As the exhibition was to be called Desde Adentro (From Within), the boys did a special photo for that—they sat on the floor and wrote the name of the exhibition on the soles of the feet. That was something we were not expecting.
In 2014, a selection of work from the boys won an honorable mention in a local photo competition.
PP: What was the staff’s reactions to the boys walking around with cameras?
AC: We did not know of any reaction. You know, reading the photograph depends on the social construction and context. It is that possible for them and the staff of the detention center, there was no threat from outside, were themselves taking pictures around. We did not go as journalists and we weren’t there to make a report or complaint or observation of human rights in the prison.
In a subtle way, these photographs depict these young people for whom we have used the prison to delete their presence and hide them … and we’ve done so only for our own convenience. These photographs confront us with facts that lay counter to our simplistic thinking.
PP: Do prisons work?
AC: Prisons serve as a reflection of human behavior in which the administration of justice becomes confused with revenge.
We want justice but don’t think very deeply about its application. People go to prison for many different types of crime but when they’re inside we make no distinctions. Initially, justice is operational and later it is a process that becomes bureaucratic, expensive and exhausting for those who experience it. The legal part of the system is a mess; it is much harder to get out even with the law in your favor. Prisons may be where all traffic comes to a dead end.
PP: Can photography heal social ills?
AC: Yes. It is an effective tool to communicate, to visualize and generate impact to social problems. Although it’s not a massively used tool for educational purposes, I think no efforts are small and everything we do is important.
In the near future, I want to train groups of people to jump-start local journalism projects involving vulnerable sectors of population and minorities (native groups, sexual minorities, neighborhoods, and others.
PP: So reach is a big factor too.
AC: Yes. César Holm, who works on a project for the professionalization of photographers in Mexico, in a conversation we had recently, mentioned the need to get an audience for photography and the promotion of a profile for teaching. I agree with him.
I say it is not a massive tool because although photojournalism represents a broad global distribution circuit, I have the impression that we are producing for ourselves. This phrase I heard a few years ago and I still like it, “only photographers know photographers”. We like to publish books that we read, there are contests and scholarships for specialized circle of consumers, who are we and our friends.
I think we could expand that circle.
My list of fave photobooks is the Vantage list of fave photobooks. I noted the subheader should read: How four books mailed to the author and two other books he bought in crowdfunding campaigns made the grade
THE ANOINTED ONES
Fan by Rian Dundon (Modes Vu)
A Lebanese Archive by Ania Dabrowska (Bookworks + Arab Image Foundation)
Deadline by Will Steacy (b.frank books)
In The Vale of Cashmere by Thomas Roma (Powerhouse)
Law & Order by Jan Banning
Pony Congo by Vicente Paredes (This Book Is True)
I’m perplexed by how exactly the photo-world goes about constructing its holiday exhortations. So much so that Joachim Schmid’s polite takedown of the Photobook-Industrial-Complex is just the best thing.
READ THE FULL REASON BEHIND THE LIST HERE