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The Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, NY, has just put out an open call for photography related to prisons and incarceration. They’re seeking work about prisons, prison towns, neighbours, families and children, guards, incarcerated persons and returning citizens. Landscapes, portraits and still lifes are offered as suggestions but I’d hazard they’ll take any type of imagery and I encourage the pushing of boundaries.
“This is a topic I have long wanted to present,” says gallery owner Karen Davis. “[Mass incarceration] is not a topic commonly found in our type of gallery.”
Bravo to Davis Orton to getting stuck in to the issue.
Details on how to submit your work here. The dates of the show are June 24th to July 22nd. Deadline for entry is June 6th.
During the run of the show, the Prison Public Memory Project (one of the most intriguing and layered public research projects I know) will be facilitating film screenings, discussions and presentations relating to mass incarceration.
This year marks 200 years since Auburn Prison went in to operation. Joe Librandi-Cowan grew up in the shadow of massive maximum-security prison in upstate New York. Over the past three years, Librandi-Cowan has been photographing the neighborhoods around the prison (now called Auburn Correctional Facility), has been meeting locals, diving into archives and exhibiting the work within the region. His main body of work is The Auburn System, titled after the Auburn System of prison management that added hard labour to the Philadelphia System of solitary, penitence and prayer. His photobook Songs of a Silent Wall brings together archive images of American prisons.
Librandi-Cowan has contempt for the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) in the United States and the manner in which its decentralized and embedded nature allows for its silent persistence. His work mounts a narrative that writes Auburn into the early chapters of the development of the PIC. It’s not a narrative closely examined by others in his hometown. Shaping and presenting the work has not been without its challenges.
It is Librandi-Cowan’s negotiations between critiquing the system and maintaining empathy for ordinary people who work in it–who are also swallowed by it–that fascinate me. Not least, because other image-makers focused on prisons are dealing with similarly delicate negotiations.
I’m grateful to Librandi-Cowan for making time to answer my questions.
Scroll on for our Q&A.
PP: How did your work on Auburn Prison come about? Is it still ongoing?
JLC: The project formed into the focus of my undergraduate studies and eventually into my thesis work. The project is ongoing. The work requires a slow, long-term approach. While Auburn is my hometown, I still struggle to understand and represent it visually. My relationship to Auburn, much like the town’s relationship to the prison industry, is complex. I critique and question the history of an institution that has almost always supported the community. The fact that I am a member of the community, forces me to move slowly and carefully.
The history takes a while to sift through, the relationships I make with fellow Auburnians take a while to forge, and figuring out how to represent and combat the prison industrial complex isn’t something that is simple to figure out.
PP: When did you first start thinking of the prison as a topic for your art and inquiry?
JLC: The prison sits in the middle of the city. Many members of local families, generations deep, have been employed by the prison industry. Growing up, I was vaguely aware that some of my family had worked in the prison, but I never gave the prison – which was down the street from where I lived, always in view – much of a thought.
I knew little bits about the prison’s history – that it was one of the oldest prisons in New York State, and that it was the first place to host an execution by electrocution – but the prison, and ideas related to imprisonment, were seldom discussed or explained. I never questioned or understood the prison beyond it being a place for employment.
It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t necessarily normal to have a prison down the street or to have a family member or neighbor that worked inside a prison.
JLC: As I got older, I began to learn more about the prison system, mass incarceration, the economics involved and I began to realize that the prison had a much larger influence on my community than I had initially thought or understood. I began making images to make sense of the complicated role the prison has had with my hometown, with history, and with myself as a young person living in the town. I began photographing in an attempt to make sense of the prison system from the lens of a prison host community, but immediately I realized that it further pushed me to question it.
PP: Where have you presented this work?
JLC: I have presented this at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art, which is Auburn’s local history museum. I have also shown selections of the work at LightWork in Syracuse, NY, and I recently opened a show at SUNY Onondaga.
PP: When you showed it in Auburn itself how was it received?
JLC: Reactions varied – it was positive, negative, and also a bit static/unresponsive. Much of the feedback I received were initial aesthetic responses, and not feedback on the conceptual aspects or questions the work asked.
The prison is a top employer within the community, so people are seemingly reluctant to critique or question the role of the prison, its historical implications, or what the hosting of a prison means for a community.
While showing the work in Auburn, I made it clear within my presentation that I was questioning Auburn’s role within the prison industrial complex – past and present – and that I was interested in finding a way within our community to talk about the increasing problem of mass incarceration within the United States.
JLC: I found this information to be much more difficult to present and discuss within Auburn because so many within my community are directly involved with the correctional system. It was incredibly difficult to find ways to talk about what the work questions without the perception that I was criticizing the generations of people within my community who work or have worked at the prison. Finding productive ways to critically engage, discuss, and question the livelihood of many in my community has been very difficult.
In turn, the response to the work often ends up being extremely limited. Employee contracts won’t allow for correctional officers to discuss some of these issues with me, nor they do not want to talk ill of their work. Many people within my community have a difficult time reasoning with my questioning of the prison system; their relationships to it are complex, deep, and difficult to reckon with.
While many may generally agree that the prison system doesn’t function properly or fairly, Auburn’s relationship to its prison doesn’t seem to allow for a communal discussion on the matter.
PP: You suggested to me in an email that your worry over local reactions have effected the way you edit and present?
JLC: I wouldn’t say that I’ve necessarily changed the work, but I often worry that the project, and that the directness of my stance on the prison industry, may do damage to my community – especially when presented internally. Auburn has bore witness to much trauma. It has direct and early links to the Prison Industrial Complex, the electric chair, and to correctional practices that have helped shaped modern day incarceration. Condensing and presenting that information to the community almost produces and perpetuates this trauma. While it’s not the community’s direct fault, my questioning of these practices and histories has the potential to produce the feeling that the community itself is to blame.
While it is important to combat mass incarceration and the toxic attitudes that prison work can breed, I believe it’s also important to realize and remember that prisons have direct effects on the people who work within them and on the communities that host them.
To me, the ability of many within my community to navigate between the daily entrapment of prison walls and civilian life, begins to raise many questions about how traumas and toxic attitudes are transferred and perpetuated within my community and within society in general.
JLC: Prisons not only affect incarcerated individuals – they affect those who staff the prisons, the people close to those staff too. They affect towns that host prisons and communities from which members are extracted to then be incarcerated.
Prisons shape, and are shaped, by local and regional economies connected to the prison industry, and attitudes towards race – the list goes on. I’m trying to show that the web of the prison industrial complex, while much closer to my hometown than others, is something, often almost invisible, that is local to almost every American.
While I doubt many would pick prison work as their first employment opportunity, it is one of the only financially stable options within the Auburn area. Attacking the industry that financially provides for many within the community doesn’t seem to be the best way to have these conversations or to figure out alternatives or answers to the prison.
As I continue this project, I am attempting to find ways to properly and effectively critique mass incarceration and the Prison Industrial Complex without alienating or further damaging my subjects – whether they be community members, correctional officers, or incarcerated individuals, or returning citizens.
PP: What is gained and what is lost by such slow and reflexive approach?
JLC: Being cautious and thoughtful about how the work may impact the actual people that the work represents will only help further the project and its possible impacts.
Much of the contemporary work on prisons deals with incarcerated individuals, however, I’m becoming increasingly interested in figuring out how conversations and representations of others within the prison industrial complex can impact and change our discussions on mass incarceration. Maybe if it can be shown that mass incarceration negativity effects all within the equation, different sources of change may occur?
I believe The Auburn System functions well outside of Auburn because distance from the work allows for a more general discussion around mass incarceration. But showing the work within Auburn has made me rethink how it should function within the town.
PP: Thanks, Joe
JLC: Thank you, Pete
Cunliffe Street, Chorley
THE DARK FIGURE
The abuse might be going on in your town. Victims may be under coercion in your neighbourhood. Slaves and masters may be on your street. If that sounds far-fetched take a look at Amy Romer‘s project The Dark Figure* and you’ll learn that modern day slavery is diffuse throughout Britain. In recent years, cases of contemporary slavery, forced work and forced prostitution have been detected and prosecuted in villages, towns and cities in every region of the UK.
While modern day slavery is more prevalent in developing nations, it persists in (what we in the West prefer to call) advanced democratic nations. In December 2015, the UK Home Office estimated that there were 13,000 victims of slavery in Britain. The government referred to the 13,000 as “the dark figure” from which Romer’s documentary project derives its name.
Romer has travelled the UK photographing the streets that her research has uncovered as sites of slavery. I encourage you to learn more about the cases the project covers here:The Dark Figure*.
Romer wants “people to be reminded of somewhere they have lived or visited; somewhere they feel safe.” Do these places look familiar? For me these places look very familiar. I spent my formative years drinking at a pub at the bottom of Cunliffe Street, Chorley (pictured above). In recent weeks, I’ve travelled through Burnley, Batley and Blackburn. During the project, Romer discovered that two traffickers facing prosecution in Plymouth lived one street over from her.
The Dark Figure* is not an easy project to face. It is insistent on revealing the nastiness in our midst. It holds considerable visual dissonance for British audiences particularly. The act of documenting is, for Romer, a form of witness. I wonder to what degree this work propels us to learn more about the hidden issue? I wonder if any victims of contemporary slavery would ever see it? There’s a lot to unpack here, so I was happy Romer was willing to answer a few of my questions. Scroll on for our Q&A.
Ash Road, Horfield, Bristol
Q & A
I expect there are so many sites of imprisonment, slavery and abuse. How do you choose which to photograph?
Sadly, where I photograph is largely determined by and limited to which stories make the headlines. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act has made prosecutions of modern slavery and human trafficking easier to conduct and so we are starting to see an increase in cases and subsequent media attention. However, due to the sensitivity of the such cases, police give very limited information to press for the protection of both victims and suspects. So I’m having to initially search for the stories through the press and then do some digging of my own via the police, The White Pages and Google.
The problem is that many cases will never be known to the press, to me or to the public generally. First of all, it’s a hidden crime so uncovering it in the first place is a significant challenge, which takes a huge amount of police resources and social care. Secondly, victims are often scared of authority and have absolutely no trust to give. They’ve been mentally and/or physically controlled and threatened and are entirely dependent upon their ”employer” or “gang-master”, so even when victims are recovered it is likely they will run away from police or from care, and in a lot of cases, will return to their gang-master or get picked up by another. And we’ll never hear about it.
Putting aside the disturbing limitations, I knew early on that the project would only become effective once I was able to present an abundance of cases, becoming a kind of bleak directory of U.K. modern slavery cases. So as long as I’ve been able to piece together solid and reliable facts and have been able to get to the locations, I haven’t been too fussy about which stories I pick. It’s been more important that I capture the diversity of the problems that exist in the U.K., and to try to communicate that sense of abundance.
SOAS, Russell Square, London
Batley Field Hill, Batley, Kirklees
Bamfurlong Lane, Staverton, Cheltenham
What are the strengths and shortcomings of the image (as a medium) in the face of this issue?
The image of modern slavery is in most cases a troubling one. It’s hidden nature makes its reality very difficult to photograph. Instead, we tend to find images made to represent slavery, using actors or “symbols” of slavery such as hands tied with rope or a person trapped behind bars, which are not only inaccurate but are damaging to the understanding of the issue.
We may be exposed to photo stories of sex trafficking or labour exploitation in other countries, but we need to show people its right here in the UK with real pictures of real stories.
How do you describe the photographs?
There is nothing notable I can say about these images on their own. Perhaps that they are deliberately quiet. It is only when coupled with their stories that the pictures become something sinister, at which point the viewer can reconsider the world they thought was safe and familiar to them.
My ultimate goal is to spur a realisation in the audience that such crimes are likely to be happening much closer to home than they imagine.
Ringwood Road, Bournemouth
You explained in the Multimedia Week podcast that when you first approached people you had the idea, the will, but not something tangible to show; no images to share. Then you went out and just started making photographs to demonstrate your commitment and skill. Can you explain how and why that order of events helped or hindered the project.
There’s no right or wrong order of doing anything. But in my case, it had to happen in that order for me to understand the reality of the work I was proposing, and to then move forward with alternative ideas. But you never know with these things until you try. All it takes is speaking to the right person and you don’t know who that person is. (I still don’t!).
I was very lucky at the beginning and experienced a great deal of openness from Devon and Cornwall Police, which possibly led me to believe others would be just as forthcoming, but I came to realise this wouldn’t be the case, which I think is fair enough. Why trust me? The problem is, I’m still battling with the access I want – but this is all part of the job.
What I will say though, is that when I started making photographs I felt a huge sense of relief. Even for someone who relishes in research, I very much reached a point where I just needed to pick up a camera and go shoot.
This style of photography was very different than what I’m used to so it was a very interesting process for me and one which allowed me to continue research from a more positive perspective, as I started shaping my ideas and understanding of the subject through pictures.
Brougham Street, Burnley
Wentloog Avenue, Peterstone, South Wales
Farrier Road, Perivale, Ealing
Have you spoken to survivors of modern slavery?
I have. I had one guy reach out to me via Facebook having seen my project. We’re in conversation about working together long distance.
Previous to this, I had been trying to reaching out to NGOs for access to survivors, but had found that even after I had received a “yes” from a number of them, and months worth of email and phone communication, access would eventually be denied for the protection of the survivor(s). Of course, this is understandable and I would refuse to knowingly harm or prolong the process of recovery for any survivor, but I’m not always convinced the refusal has been a decision that has involved the survivor. I think NGOs sometimes struggle to appreciate the impact of a story told first-hand, compared with stories told by actors or through written case studies, which is what readers will usually experience. I’m not sure it’s enough to really reach people.
How do you assess public opinion in Britain on the issue of modern slavery?
“Modern slavery? What’s that!?”
The problem doesn’t just end with the lack of public awareness of modern slavery itself, but deepens with dangerous misunderstandings about the differences between terms such as “sex exploitation” and “sex work”, or “human trafficking” and “smuggling”, for example. These misunderstandings are only intensified when Europe finds itself at the centre of a migrant crisis, tangled with terms such as these that are freely distributed across the mass media.
Hathway Walk, Easton, Bristol
North Street, Bedminster, Bristol
Peckford Place, Brixton, London
Are the police doing good work?
There is a lack of consistency throughout the country. I have been largely based in Devon and Cornwall, where their Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, is the UK policing lead for modern slavery, making the South-West surprisingly ahead of the game … for a game that is very far behind.
The 2015 Modern Slavery Act has certainly helped raise public consciousness and agencies are beginning to make good use of the Act. More victims are being identified than ever before. In 2015, 3,266 potential victims were identified and referred for support, a 40% increase on the previous year. There have been an increased number of proactive and reactive police investigations with an increased number of prosecutions and convictions.
But despite stand-out examples of good practice, there is still a lack of consistency in how law enforcement and criminal justice agencies deal with modern slavery. Training for police officers, investigators and prosecutors is patchy and sometimes completely absent. There is also an insufficient amount of intelligence about the nature and scale of modern slavery at regional, national and international level, which hampers the operational response and ability to build knowledge and learn from mistakes.
Union Street, Plymouth
Which organisations are doing work to advocate and illuminate the issue?
There are many organisations both big and small. It’s difficult to pick on individuals as I’ve become biased towards or against my own experiences, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the organisation as a whole.
I find it hard to truly know how impactful NGOS are. They seem to all be chasing money from the same pot and in some cases are actively working against each other for their own benefit.
But, to shine a positive light on something I know for sure: several NGOs act as “first responders” under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the government framework which grants 45-days of “reflection and recovery” for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. In this inexcusably short period of time, victims are expected to give evidence of the horrors they have experienced to feared authorities so that “trained decision makers” can announce whether they are to be considered victims of trafficking. During this period, first responders provide housing and support for victims; so if by some miracle a victim feels compelled to recount their experiences to the police, it is surely all thanks to the outreach specialists supporting them.
On a less positive note: this 45-day period given by the government’s NRM, reflects the lack of understanding surrounding the issue. Even if an organisation has been made fully aware what their client has been through, if they do not wish to testify within 45-days, they are not considered victims and their support cannot continue. What will happen to the victim after 45-days? If they are not deported back to the country they were likely escaping from, they will probably end up back within the trafficking system. This is very challenging for support workers and NGOs and I salute all their efforts.
Spa Road, Bolton
Ford Park Road, Mutley, Plymouth
You’ve already made a newspaper. What else lies in store?
I think something I’ve had to learn the hard way is that it’s all very well making things for a project, but unless anyone sees it, what’s the point?
The reason I made the newspaper is because it would be cheaper to produce and easy to share with the community. People sometimes tell me it would look great in a book. Fine, but who is actually going to buy it other than photographers? In fact, who is going to fund it should be my first question, but it is not my first concern.
My focus for now and for the near future (at least) is to raise awareness. The work needs to be published, and the newspaper needs funding to be printed and shared in the community. It’s a slow game but I’m working on it.
How long do you intend to work on The Dark Figure*?
I’ve slowed the project for the moment as I’m currently in a state of transition, having recently moved to Vancouver, Canada with my partner for his work in science.
Saying that, I’ve had a few fresh ideas for The Dark Figure* since being over here, which I plan to follow up remotely. But naturally, I want to focus my attention towards Canada specific projects whilst I’m here for a few years.
There’s so much more work to be done and that’s partly why I felt comfortable placing The Dark Figure* to one side, as I have no doubt I’ll be exploring new avenues for it in the future.
Longworth Street, Preston
Portugal Street, Holborn, London
Wheelers Lane, Linton, Maidstone, Kent
What has been the reaction to The Dark Figure* so far?
From the people I’ve reached out to, the reaction has been very good. There have been flurries of people contacting me to buy the zine or the newspaper, mostly from the UK but also Europe, which is great.
There has been some valid criticism from news based editors explaining why they would find it difficult to publish, which I’m working on overcoming. My writing needs to be fact-checked in order to be publishable.
Also, outlets need to know I haven’t trespassed. I have never trespassed–there is no need. The Dark Figure* captures the surrounding neighbourhoods, not the actual property in question, and I’m always on the street.
Walker Street, Rawmarsh, Rotherham
Do you ever get overwhelmed? Depressed? Are you hopeful? Talk us through your self-care strategies.
I am cynical and can be full of doubt, all the time. But for me, these stories are about human survival, and despite being totally fascinated by it all, it’s what gives me hope and drives my work forward.
Tragedies exist everywhere, and I don’t think that’s a difficult idea to grasp. But what is difficult, is to believe that such tragedies are happening right in front of us. And I don’t just mean modern slavery. Domestic abuse, addiction, mental health issues and so on, are all issues that can largely exist behind closed doors. By attempting to shine a light onto a truth that otherwise may not be acknowledged, I am doing something useful and positive. It’s a self-care strategy in itself.
Saying that, the news can sometimes overwhelm me when I’m thinking specifically about this work. The migrant crisis. Immigration. I wonder whether the government’s efforts to “face up to modern day slavery” is just another way of deporting the unwanted. Europe is becoming more and more tangled with problems and I wonder what effect it will have on human trafficking, for example. 10,000 refugee children are missing. Where have they gone? Something tells my cynical mind, like all hidden tragedies, we won’t find out the easy way.
A sombre note on which to end. Thank you for sharing your work and thoughts, Amy.
Thank you, Pete.
Smart Street, Longsight, Manchester
Later today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the nominations for the 2017 Oscars. Ava DuVernay’s doc 13th is on the longlist and tipped to make the shortlist for Best Documentary*. 13th has, deservedly, got a lot of praise since its release in October, but there’s another documentary about the Prison Industrial Complex that came out in 2016 that I’d like to champion here.
The Prison In Twelve Landscapes, directed by Brett Story, is a film that, in many ways, retools the documentary format. It is a film about prison without ever going inside one (although the film closes with a monumental, slow-motion approach to the car-park of the citadel-like Attica Prison). It’s not up for a gong, which is a shame because everyone can benefit from its radical politics and creative verve.
Forcefully, The Prison In Twelve Landscapes rejects the common format of prison documentaries. You know, meet a character; set the broader context of incarceration; chart the character’s life; establish a moment in which fortunes changed for the worst; define the injustice; imagine a different future for the main character and possibly thousands or millions of others locked up for whom she/he serves as representative.
“I’ve watched a lot of prison films, documentaries and non-doc’s, and they kind of all take the same shape,” Story told Guernica recently. “You go inside a prison, you point the camera at a black man in a cell and the narrative, especially if it is a progressive or liberal film, will expose what’s going on. You expose the violence, you expose the injustice of this person’s incarceration, or you tell a redemption story, or transformation or an innocence story. It seemed to me that these narratives have their place, but there are limitations to them.”
In her deliberate refusal of orthodoxy, Story comes up with a structure that leaps across geographies, communities and themes: an unnamed female prisoner talks about fighting fire in Marin County with the California Department of Corrections (she is proud of the work but knows she won’t be a fire-fighter after release because of her conviction); a resident of a post-coal Kentucky town thankful for “recession proof” prison jobs; poor Missouri residents kept down by over-policing and rampant ticketing; an overly eager spokesperson for Quicken Loans who has drunk the corporate-Koolaid and extols the virtues of wholesale regeneration, rising rents and private security firms in downtown Detroit; an entrepreneur who negotiates the byzantine NYDOC mailroom rules so prisoners’ loved ones don’t have to.
The twelve vignettes are tied together by a looming music score and studies of smoke, steam and clouds. We’re all under the same sky, we all breathe the same air. Huge credit to Director of Photography Maya Bankovic and Editor Avrïl Jacobson too.
This film manifests the visuals for abolition activism. Prisons are all around us. They emerge from capitalist logic and conform to economic and geographic structures that are both produced by, and the producer of, racism, classicism, social immobility and chauvinism. Prisons are not about solving crime; they are a punishment of people outside white hetero-normativity. Prisons brutalise marginalized communities by further excluding them from opportunity and thereby delegitimizing them; prisons allow for existent power to confirm its prejudices and further its abuses.
Again from Story’s interview with Guernica (which I can’t recommend highly enough) she explains how a narrative knitted through seemingly disparate, seemingly ordinary places reflects the pervasiveness of the problem and also the near invisibility of its (most obvious) infrastructure, the prison building itself.
“I was very cognizant of how difficult it is at this moment to get inside prisons. There are more prisons than ever before, but they are further away and more locked down than ever before. So, I was really interested in the psychic distance created by that geographic distance, and the way in which prisons are spaces of disappearance but also spaces of massive infrastructures, as buildings that hold lots of people, but they’re also disappeared in the landscape.”
Furthermore, on the limits of criminal justice reform conversations, and how those conversations cannot be separate from critiques of economic inequality and labour rights, Story says:
“So long as we are confined to thinking about [prison reform talk] just as a problem of imprisoning the wrong people or punishing people too much, then we don’t actually get at the fundamental relationships that have created the prison build up in the first place. In terms of people on the right and the neoliberal democrats as well, who are all about championing prison reform like the Koch brothers, well they are the biggest union busters in this country.”
“We can’t think about prisons and the problem of mass incarceration outside of the problem of labor. There’s a direct correlation between the stagnation of workers, wages, structural unemployment, especially for African Americans, and union busting. This sort of neoliberalism from the 1970’s onwards maps intimately alongside the rise of the carceral state. In some ways, I want to say who cares if the Koch brothers want to say we’ve locked up too many people and we want to put some money into prison reform. But, let’s not get too excited about that because at the same time they are still undermining worker power and undermining good jobs and good wages at every turn. There’s too close of a relationship between workers and the problem of unemployment, the problem of poverty and mass incarceration in this country.”
The Prison In Twelve Landscapes has already won a raft of accolades including a nomination for Best Feature Length Documentary at the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. Paste had it as one of their best documentaries of 2016. In a glowing review, The New York Times said soberly, “What we see is no less than the draining of hope from one group of citizens to benefit another.” Cinema Politica had it as one of their best political documentaries of the year. It is a film that is impeccably crafted and one that credits its audience with intelligence. It treats the complex issue of mass incarceration in a complex way.
Some of the most infuriating scenes are those from Ferguson, Missouri. Story went there one year after police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. Story met citizens like Sherie (above) who faced either a $175 fine or jail. What for? For not securing a trash-can lid. Derrick (below) talks of continual harassment, arrest and fines.
“These communities are over-policed,” explains Story, “because the revenue model is generated based primarily on police fining people of color, mostly poor people for incidental violations like traffic violations. So there is already an existing infrastructure that floods these communities with police, and this is part of the story that gave rise to this murder.”
DuVernay’s 13th, and Story’s The Prison In Twelve Landscapes are two quite different films, yet they complement one another and support the arguments of the other. (I wonder what the effect of 12 Landscapes would’ve been had it had the worldwide Netflix distribution that 13th enjoyed?)
13th walks the viewer through a literal historical narrative by means of stats, facts and talking heads. DuVernay illuminates the racist underpinnings to criminal justice and execution of law, drawing the line from slavery, to abolition, to the 13th Amendment, to convict leasing, to Jim Crow, to modern day prisons. DuVernay wants to confront us with the blatant injustice of it all; Story wants to shock us with our complicity in it all.
The two films can be understood as the feedback of one other. DuVernay shows us the injustices of the past, but Story shows us how difficult they are to untangle from the present. We’re caught in a destructive loop. Without a significant reordering of society we are destined to continue the abuse and wastage inherent to mass imprisonment.
The Prison In Twelve Landscapes is a landmark achievement in documentary making. “It’s rare that a film this outraged is also this calm,” said Village Voice. It is a film that is true and true to its form. It is creepy, troubling and near; it is a prism on our society that should deeply unsettle us. It is the best film of 2016 not to win an Oscar.
This is great –> Story’s Five Book Plan: Carceral Geography.
Peep my 2013 article The 20 Best American Prison Documentaries.
Story’s Guernica interview on the whys, whats and hows of her work.
* If 13th is shortlisted, I hope it wins as that could only benefit the ongoing awareness about the racist, classist and abusive functioning of prisons and sentencing. Honestly though, I don’t think 13th will win. It uses a formula template of chronological narrative. 13th is a very important film but it doesn’t experiment enough with the documentary form itself. I think Cameraperson will win.
** Update: 14:00 GMT. Cameraperson wasn’t shortlisted, so my prediction withers. Fire At Sea (Gianfranco Rosi and Donatella Palermo); I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, Rémi Grellety and Hébert Peck); Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams and Julie Goldman); O.J.: Made In America (Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow); and 13th (Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick and Howard Barish) were shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature.
In a massive 3×9-metre grid, Daniel Schwartz‘s Corrections (above) tiles a satellite view of every facility in the United States’ federal prison system. It’s a literal but effective means to describe the frightening scale of mass incarceration. If we bear in mind that the federal system houses approximately 210,000 prisoners, which is less than one tenth of the total prison population in the US only, then Corrections assumes an even more terrifying edge.
Schwartz created the images, I presume, by means of a customised script based upon the publicly available Google Map API. GPS coordinates inserted into the customised script allow for an automatically captured a satellite view and .jpg of sites (prisons in this case) when the script is run. I make this assumption because this was Josh Begley’s method in creating Prison Map, a similar project.
Corrections presents 1,218 facilities, about one fifth of the 6,000+ locked facilities in the US–including state, county, private and immigration prisons. To present all of the types of all of the United States’ prisons facilities would require a lot of wall space and a lot of double-sided sticky tape. I know this because as part of the Prison Obscura exhibition, I printed 392 images from Josh Begley’s Prison Map. and put them on walls. (See the heavily illustrated point below)
Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at Haverford College, PA
Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at the University of Michigan, MI
Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at Parsons New School, NY
Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at Scripps College, CA
Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at Newspace, Portland, Oregon
It was my intention to provide a visual backdrop to the computer/screen/console in the gallery at which people navigated Prison Map. Begley had, up to that point, never printed out the images from Prison Map (he did later make and sell large fine art prints), but physical objects were never the primary purpose of the project. Rather, Prison Map was an experiment how Google Earth could be manipulated to produce an image-set based upon a dataset; an experiment in how a corporation’s empire of images could be bent toward a social justice conversation. I’m speculating on this because I wonder if, after the point of automated capture, Schwartz intended to print out Corrections and stick it on a wall? There are arguments for doing so as valid as those for maintaining it as a virtual user experience. I should give Schwartz a phone-call.
I mention this, also, because there are other parellels between the work of Schwartz and Begley. In tackling the issue and enormity of the US/Mexico border, Begley made the film Best of Luck with the Wall and Schwartz made two accordion books. Both stitched together staellite images that tracked the entire border. One virtual, one physical.
On the topic of gun use, Begley made Officer Involved, which automatically captured Google Street View (GSV) scenes of the sites in which law enforcement officers killed a citizen, and Schwartz made Death By Gun, which maps firearm homicides in Los Angeles County carried out by citizens.
Both Schwartz and Begley are interested in tempting users to reimagine their smartphones’ purpose. Both are interested in having content “enter” the phone in real time. Once installed the Death By Gun app automatically saves the auto-generated images to the camera-roll. Begley’s MetaData+ app sends push notifications to your phone each time a confirmed US drone strike occurs.
Unsurprisingly, these two artists who are connecting the dots between non-human camera operation, emerging datasets and power as it relates to cyber-infrastructure, are both peering at surveillance too. Begley’s Profiling.Is usurps the photographs made by the NYPD during covert surveillance of Muslim owned businesses in New York City. While in Geo-fragments Schwartz uses GSV to automatically compose collages of sites a person (I presume himself) travels to over a 24 hour period based upon the GPS data *broadcast* by his smartphone.
What Now Then?
I’ve discussed the work of Begley and Schwartz at length because I feel they’re heading toward some very fruitful areas in which state and corporate power is challenged, if not subverted. We would do well to follow. Sure, putting the real estate portfolio of the Federal Bureau of Prison on a single wall makes for a stark visual argument–how can you not be effected by prisons filling your entire field of vision? Especially when each tile is only 4×6 inches and still the entirety towers over you.
Bringing the virtual into the real world can be a very canny strategy as Bernie Sanders showed recently in his commandeering of a Trump tweet and printing it out for the house floor. But visual effects work only in one place at one time. By contrast, superpowers’ surveillance and data gathering is non-stop. Consider that a citizen has the capacity to manipulate Google’s benign platforms but the US military has the power to plug in any data set of coordinates and launch a thousand drone strikes.
Beyond the information war in which art is essentially engaged against state and corporate malfeasance, art clearly has limited power. It is here that hacktivism and cyber-insurgence emerge as both tactic and necessity. Begley and Schwartz’s artworks reveal the gross concentrations of power inherent to astronautic surveillance but they do not fight it. They alter public perception of the oppression, but not the apparatus of oppression. Cyber-sabotage that downs, damages or compromises the apparatus is the front line of the fight. What does that mean for artists? Is hacktivism now the most crucial form of resistance? Is hacktivism art? Just spit-balling here.
Angelo on his cell bunk
Marc and Brett of Temporary Services shared a tribute to Angelo this week. They collaborated together on Prisoners’ Inventions, and although I never knew (very few people did) Angelo (not his real name, his artist name), I wanted to mark his passing here on the blog.
Prisoners’ Inventions started as a collection of more than one hundred annotated illustrations of inventions that Angelo made, saw, or heard about while incarcerated. From homemade sex dolls, salt & pepper shakers to chess sets, from privacy curtains and radios to condoms and water heaters–all “attempts to fill needs that the restrictive environment of the prison tries to suppress,” writes Temporary Services.
Battery Cigarette Lighter
It seems so long since Prisoners’ Inventions landed on my radar and even then, I was years late to the project. Someone showed me a copy of the book in 2011. But the first edition of the book was published in 2003, and new editions followed. In 2003 and 2004, Prisoners’ Inventions was presented as an exhibition at MassMOCA, complete with a full replica of Angelo’s cell, and later travelled to numerous venues. Around that time, international press blew up around the originality and the cheekiness of it all. This American Life did a bit.
Prisoners’ Inventions set a standard in many ways for artists and incarcerated individuals working in tandem–the way Angelo insisted on anonymity; the way Temporary Services held the space; the way together they let the illustrations do the work; the manner in which they (despite the barriers and censorship) communicated transparently and studiously; the way they fired public imagination with recognitions of human spirit, ingenuity and agency among a prison population so frequently vilified; the way Angelo and Temporary Services resisted any over-politicization of the project; I could go on and on.
Too often we think of art as being things not doings, as objects not relationships or as things that can exist on a shelf instead of in our hearts and minds. While Angelo and Temporary Services made objects based upon the drawings, objects were never the goal. Prisoners’ Inventions existed to demonstrate the innate creativity we all hold and also the potential in even simple written (and drawn) correspondence. It was about meaningful relation and understanding of people in very different circumstances. Temporary Services call Angelo their greatest ever collaborator, which is a huge statement from an art collective known for it communal underpinnings.
“Angelo’s writings and drawings about the creativity he observed in prison collapsed the distinctions between art and everyday survival,” said Temporary Services. “He transformed our thinking in ways that have influenced everything we’ve done since.”
In truth, Prisoners’ Inventions has influenced many an artist’s thinking and methodology since.
A common problem with artwork that deals (even tangentially) with the issue of mass incarceration, or with prisoners directly as art makers, is that the art can often fail to break down the inherent power imbalance; that the prisoner is packaged by the outsider for outside public consumption. Furthermore, some art and language can’t help but fall into patronizing stereotypes about how the artist is helping the prisoner … and that the prisoner is helpless. Prisoners’ Inventions never trivialised, infantilized or boxed Angelo’s work. Nor did Temporary Services and Angelo ever try to argue it was something it was not which I think is a reflection of their trust, equity and confidence.
“People seem willing to accept the inventions of prisoners as creative objects that merit our attention and thought without us having to force them into goofy critical constructs like *Outsider Art*,” said Temporary Services in the book Prisoners’ Inventions: Three Dialogues (PDF). “These objects don’t need critical help to become interesting. New terminology does not need to be invented to create a niche market or new genre for a stick of melted-together toothbrushes and bits of metal that can be used to make apple strudel in a prison cell.”
If you can take the time to read Prisoners’ Inventions: Three Dialogues, please do. It lays out the origins, conversations, adaptations and logistics of the multi-year project. It elaborates on subtle concepts. It shows that good art rests on a solid idea and no-bullshit presentation of the idea. The way Prisoners’ Inventions moved through cultural space, both IRL (galleries, vitrines, fabricators’ hands) and virtual (image, video, online featurettes, audience mind and assumption) and through real economic systems is fascinating. The way Temporary Services discuss the negotiation of these things in relation to their promises and shared goals with Angelo is grounding and, I think, instructive.
Stinger (Immersion Heater)
Marc and Brett explain that since Angelo’s release in 2014 he lived quietly in Los Angeles, keeping to himself, catching up on TV and films he missed while locked up for 20 years. They also mention that Angelo had to wait until release before he could see and hold a book of his drawings; the prison administration banned any copies entering the prison because (and you can’t help but laugh) the drawings would show Angelo how to jury-rig objects and homebrew solutions!
The threat was imagined and the logic flawed, of course, but this brings me to a final point. Prisoners’ Inventions did not advocate for Angelo. Never did he and Temporary Services get involved in discussions about his case or legal matters. Not once did the work threaten prison security or reveal anything unknown to nearly every prisoner locked up in America. Opportunities for meaningful, collaborative and non-combative artwork within the prison industrial complex are few and far between. I think it is vital that we recognize art and activity that amplifies the existence of some without ignoring that of others; that we seek projects that lift us all. Mass incarceration is a depressing thing, but there are moments of humor, surprise quirk and enlightenment. Be ready for them! Prisoners’ Inventions succeeded in closing the gap between us and them without forcefully or uncomfortably insisting on the defining terms of us and them. Prisoners’ Inventions occupied a rarified space and we do well to learn from it.
“Stunned and angered that an inmate had somehow acquired photos of his own cell, the guard demanded information on how he got the pictures. When Angelo pointed out the fabricators’ subtle discrepancies in the cell recreation and explained a little about the exhibition, the guard’s anger quickly turned to wonder and amusement.”
Angelo, you mined your memory, you humbly shared your knowledge, you made drawings that confounded expectations and shifted minds. You never wanted fame or fortune. You made a thing that will last. RIP.
‘Chasing the Dragon’ © Robert Saltzman / Juan Archuleta. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”
I’ve heard from a couple of folk that when I started Prison Photography, they laughed at its folly. Not only had a bleeding-heart liberal thug-hugger come along to explain a world no-one cared about to no-one in particular, but silly-little-leftie-me would run out of projects and photographs in no time. Not only had I picked a subject nobody cared for, I’d neglected to do the proper amount of research and maths.
Well, more than eight years later, and I’m still stumbling upon scintillating projects that challenge my ever-evolving timeline of prison-based visual arts. Case in point La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe, a collaboration between Robert Saltzman and the prisoners of New Mexico State Penitentiary, in Santa Fe, NM.
© Robert Saltzman / Keith Baker. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”
Saltzman first visited the prison in 1982 to visit a friend and thereafter was fascinated by the lives behind the walls. Despite a massive riot less than two years prior, Saltzman convinced the warden to allow him in with his 35mm SLR, three lenses and camera-mounted flash. Saltzman gave assurances he was there as an artist and not as a reporter.
Over 9 months, Saltzman made 500 images on Kodachrome64 film. He picked the 35 strongest portraits but still wasn’t happy. They failed to tell a fraction of the stories or reflect even a small slice of the range of emotions he encountered. So he printed the 35 out and mounted them on white illustration board. He sent them back in, a few at a time, with a request.
“Please use the white space however you want,” Saltzman told Popular Photography in 1985.
© Robert Saltzman / Jonathan S. Shaw. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”. Screengrab from Google Books scan of an issue of Popular Photography (Vol. 92, No. 3, March 1985, pages 66-69 + 141, ISSN 1542-0337)
Some photographers would be happy to get in and out with some portraits and call it a day. Plaudits to Saltzman that he distanced himself enough to make a hard call about the nature of his pictures. And with it adding more time and uncertainty to the project.
28 total works came back. In the first exhibition of La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe, 11 were shown. Later, 14 were exhibited.
“The drawings and writings, coupled with Saltzman’s portraits, communicate a poignant and often tension-filled commentary on the prison experience,” writes James Hugunin, art historian, expert on prison imagery and curator of a 1996 show Discipline and Photograph which included Saltzman’s work.
© Robert Saltzman / Ralph K Millam. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”. Screengrab from Google Books scan of an issue of Popular Photography (Vol. 92, No. 3, March 1985, pages 66-69 + 141, ISSN 1542-0337)
This work excites me because it avoids easy categorisation. This type of collaborative work is standard-fare these days with a new generation of practitioners inspired by the social justice priorities of photographers like Wendy Ewald, Anthony Luvera, Eric Gottesman and many more. In the early eighties however, when Saltzman et al. made these, collaboration was considered a bit amateurish. God forbid you allow scrawls upon photographs! Pencil was meant only for contact sheets, editing and for marking crops for the darkroom. Note that among famous photographers Robert Frank made some good scrawls on his stuff in the 70s for himself and for ad campaigns in the 80s and we all know Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor (1977-78) was before its time and the high-profile example of a photographer handing over prints for subjects to write upon.
With the exception of Danny Lyon, all the photographers I know that preceded Robert Saltzman in photographing inside US prisons–Steven Malinowski, Gary Walrath, Joshua Freiwald, Sean Kernan, Cornell Capa, Ruth Morgan, Douglas Kent Hall, Taro Yamasaki–were invested in keeping the camera, and thus the message and interpretation, in their own hands. Given the times and the preciousness of access, it makes sense that photographers would internalise society’s general attitude toward them as special messengers. (I should flag here, as I always do, that Ethan Hoffman’s work and book Concrete Mama was exemplary of this time in terms of giving over great space for his imprisoned subjects recount their stories.)
I wouldn’t say that photographing prison guards hadn’t happened by the early eighties, but it was unusual. So for Saltzman to get the written reflections of guard Ralph K. Millam (above) is significant too. Most photography projects within prison focus on the prisoners and very few focus on both the kept and the keepers.
In short, due to both its subject matter and approach, Saltzman’s La Pinta is landmark. Prisons weren’t photographed much in the early eighties and certainly not for as long as a year, the time it took Saltzman to complete the work. Its collaborative methodology allows for heightened emotional impact and positions it ahead of other works that later used similar formulas and embodied likeminded sympathies.
See more here.
Photo: Daniel Stier, from Ways of Knowing, 2015.
A couple of my fav photo-peeps are hosting a live online chat today about photography and science in the modern era. You can be involved. Michael Shaw of Reading the Pictures and independent curator Marvin Heiferman are putting on a salon conversation to analyze a group of ten news photos of “science” of one guise or another.
Panelists include Rebecca Adelman UMBC Professor of Media & Communication Studies; Ben de la Cruz, Multimedia Editor, Science Desk, NPR; Corey Keller, Curator, SFMOMA; Kurt Mutchler, Senior Editor, Science, Photography Department, National Geographic; and Max Mutchler, Space Telescope Science Institute, Hubble Heritage Project manager. Nate Stormer, University of Maine professor will moderate.
The ten photos were selected from thousands of media images.
“If photography was invented,” writes Shaw, “so that the sciences could communicate with each other, now it’s as much about making that investigation relevant to consumers, investors and alternately curious, fearful or enthralled citizens. This discussion is interested in science as a social agenda and a media phenomenon. It’s about the popularization of science, the attitude and approach on the part of science toward its own activities and what the general public sees of it.”
It will be fascinating. The salon is free but registration is required. Register here. Kicks of today December 1st, at 7 pm EST and will go for 2 hours on Google HangOut with live audio, video and with involvement from the public via live chat.
The discussion, jointly produced with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is a featured component of SEEING SCIENCE, a year-long project that explores the role photography plays in shaping, representing, and furthering the sciences.