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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
‘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.
Sandra Whyte is no stranger to prisons. Married to a prison officer, she has lived in prison quarters for the past 35-years–first at HMP Dungavel and later at HMP Peterhead. Now closed and functioning as a museum, HMP Peterhead is most well-known for a protest and hostage-takings in 1987. Most recently, Whyte and her husband have lived at HMP Shotts in Lanarkshire where these photographs were made.
“Most of my married life has been caught up with prisons; husband working in them, all my neighbours working there too,” says Whyte who thinks of the prison and prisoners as part of her community.
“The original prison was purpose built in 1978 and catered for long term male offenders with sentences of four or more years,” explains Whyte. Prisoners who required to be kept in more secure conditions were transferred from other prisons.
Whyte and her children would stop while walking the dogs in order to chat with prisoners who were tending prison grounds.
The original Shotts prison buildings operated until 2012 when they were completely demolished. Simultaneously, new blocks were going up—“a modern and much more economic and environmentally friendly group of buildings” says Whyte.
During construction, Whyte chatted to the contractors and got on good terms with the site manager.
“Once the old prison was emptied and the prisoners had been transferred to the new one, I got permission via the site manager and the Governor to gain access with my camera,” says Whyte. “I felt it needed documenting, it would have been sad just to demolish what was a huge part of so many people’s lives without keeping some sort of record of it.”
Whyte made hundreds of images, but here on Prison Photography I selected an edit of 26 which focuses on the external fabric and internal adornment—be it murals, signs, paintings, graffiti or scrawls. In these splashes of colour, small vandalisms, personal touches and sectarian declarations, Whyte finds evidence of individuality.
“I suppose [living in such proximity] has affected the way I view prisons and prisoners, I do see them as members of the community,” she says. “The graffiti shows something about the people who lived there.”
And for those that live there Whyte thinks prison works for some and not for others.
“If people are treated in a humane way and given opportunities and support then yes, perhaps prison can help the majority?” she posits. “Certainly, we have to incarcerate people who are a danger to society. I’ve chatted to a fair few lifers over the years—murderers and rapists—who agree that they had to go to prison for their crimes.”
Being so close to the institution, or the operations and staff of three institutions at least, leaves Whyte reluctant to gauge the Scottish public’s attitude toward prisons.
“I don’t think I can comment really on the attitudes of members of the public to prisons/prisoners, my view is probably somewhat skewed.”
All images: Sandra Whyte
The illustrated field-guide to Modernist architecture in Manchester, England is in production but Rich and designer Vaseem Bhatti are after some extra cash to make the thing sing. The Modernist Society is raising monies on Indiegogo.
The exciting development here is that they’re producing a collectors’ edition with a custom-formed concrete cover. Yours if you back the project with £111.
My brother’s been photographing Manchester for 20 years and has, almost accidentally, become the expert on the city’s mid-to-late-20th century buildings. He’s no pro with a camera but he knows a bit. As for the text, his academic chops cannot be denied. The website of his decades of research is at www.mainstreammodern.co.uk
Go on, throw some money in the pot.
Hospital lobby. © Kim Rushing
Long before I started writing about prison imagery and before I even set foot in the United States, photographer and educator Kim Rushing was making images of the men at the infamous Parchman Farm, known officially as Mississippi State Penitentiary. Rushing made these photographs and others over a four year period (1994-1998). They recently been published by University Press of Mississippi as a book simply titled Parchman.
After a first glance at the photographs I was surprised to hear they were made in the nineties. Many images appear as if they could have been captured in much earlier decades, but such is the nature of prisons which either change at glacial pace or remain in a temporal stasis–uniforms replace identifiable fashion; hardware is from eras past; conditions can appear mid-century; and the vats of the kitchens and gas chamber seem permanently footed to the concrete foundations.
Spaghetti, central kitchen. © Kim Rushing
Gas chamber. © Kim Rushing
Rushing’s photographs are a welcome view to a past era and a brief step back in time. My overriding takeaway from the project is that time, as in all prisons, operates by its own rules.
Rushing’s contribution to the emerging visual history of American incarceration is valuable, not least because it contains some hope. Whether the absence of violence is a fair reflection of Parchman would be a worthwhile discussion but for broader research some other time. Take the images at their face value and we can identify other prevalent characteristics of prisons, namely boredom, containment, some programming, and certain longing. (I’d hazard to guess the programming such as gardening have been scaled back.)
To insist that an almost predictable perspective on prisons exists in Rushing’s work is borne out in close comparison of the work of other photographers. Rushing’s portraits are very similar to those of Adam Shemper’s made at Angola Prison, Louisiana in 2000.
Cornelius Carroll © Kim Rushing
There are also quiet echoes of David Simonton’s 4×5 photographs of Polk Youth Facility in North Carolina made in the nineties. Except in Rushing’s images prisoners inhabit the scratched, peeling interiors. Interestingly, both bodies of work remind me of Roger Ballen‘s dark worlds, but that might be a leap too far given the specific psychological manipulations by Ballen in his native South Africa.
Gregory Applewhite at window © Kim Rushing
In terms of touchstone and stated portraiture projects, I see fair comparisons with the incredible work of Ruth Morgan in San Quentin Prison, California made in the early eighties.
Billy Wallace. © Kim Rushing
And in terms of predictable moments, I cannot help but think of Ken Light’s portrait of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas from 1994, when I view Rushing’s photo of Kevin Pack (below).
Kevin Pack watching TV. © Kim Rushing
In the book Parchman, alongside Rushing’s images are the handwritten letters of 18 prisoners–ranging in custody level from trustee to death row–who volunteered to be photographed. “What does it feel like when two people from completely different worlds look at each other over the top of a camera?” asks University Press of Mississippi. In this case, I’d argue, the successful insertion of humanity into an institution that has historically crushed the spirits of those inside. Clearly adept in his art, Rushing has made a stark and sometimes touching portrait of an invisible population.
Feeding the spider © Kim Rushing
Parchman (cloth-bound; 10 x 10 inches; 208 pages; 125 B&W photographs) is now available for $50.00 from University Press of Mississippi.
Photo: Mimi Plumb. Anonymous man. Do you know this man?
During the summer of 1975, Mimi Plumb spent months in the Salinas Valley, watching farmworkers make history.
“I traveled up and down the valleys of California photographing the young men living in farm labor camps, in chicken coops and under the sky, the children and adults working together in the fields, and the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) organizers and volunteers listening and talking with farmworkers about how elections in the fields might change their lives,” says Plumb.
Plumb shot dozens of rolls of film, which she developed at the time and made prints. But she didn’t show them much except for in the UFW field office and in an SFAI (San Francisco Art Institute) exhibition. A few images appeared in newspapers at the time.
Almost 40 years later, after her retirement from teaching, Plumb pulled the negatives and old prints from their boxes and started to put together the pieces. (An edit Pictures From The Valley is on her website).
It is an exhilarating re-emergence.
Camp Roberts. The weather had turned warm, and by noon the temperature topped 100 degrees. The marchers stopped for a rest at Camp Roberts, a former Army training center just off Highway 101. Chavez was always using his time to organize – whether he was in motion or sitting still. He posed for photos with groups of workers from each of the ranches — the hand sewn banners forming a good backdrop. Photo: Mimi Plumb. Caption: Miriam Pawel.
The photos are rich and pregnant; they deserve so much attention. And they get it. The California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities, with help from the Center for Community Advocacy and the National Steinbeck Center, produced and funded efforts to identify the people in Plumb’s photographs and to seek out their stories.
The result is Democracy In The Fields, a visual record paired with oral histories. It’s the history of popular movements mixed with anthropology mixed with the history of labor. I love the way photographs have been leveraged here to shape a collective story that would otherwise have been dissipated and drowned out.
Among the subjects are Rosa Saucedo, Jose Renteria, Mario Bustamante, Alberto Magallon, Sabino Lopez, Celestino Rivas, Ricardo Villalpando, Cesar Chavez and the Amezcua Family.
Many of the people in Plumb’s photographs were identified by journalist Miriam Pawel who has written extensively about Chavez and the history of the United Farm Workers union. Together, Plumb and Pawel met with groups of former farmworkers who had been in Salinas in 1975.
“Children saw pictures of their parents as young adults for the first time. Grown men who had no photos of their fathers found them in Plumb’s images,” says the Democracy In The Fields website.
The faces in the images are luminous. Time and time again, there’s huge joy among the workers. Did they know they were marching to victory? Despite the grave consequences at stake, the workers and protesters seem unencumbered by the repsonsibility. The marchers particularly look as if they’re relishing ever purpose-defined moment.
The Teatro Campesino performed skits at the Potter Road Labor Camp. Photo: Mimi Plumb.
UFW Field Office. Photo: Mimi Plumb.
Photo: Mimi Plumb.
In the summer of 1975, with only months to prepare for the first elections in the fields, dozens of farmworkers who had demonstrated leadership were tapped by the UFW to leave their jobs in the fields and work for the union for ten weeks. Rosa Saucedo, a 21-year-old in the lettuce fields, was one of 40 hired in Salinas. Each was assigned specific companies. Rosa’s job was to win over workers at D’Arrigo, a large vegetable grower where the UFW was fighting the Teamsters. She was interviewed in Spanish by journalist Bob Barber in the midst of the campaign. Photo: Mimi Plumb. Caption: Miriam Pawel.
Photo: Mimi Plumb.
Jose Renteria mans one of the election booths. When the votes were counted, the UFW won a big victory – 188 votes to 84 for the Teamsters and 4 for No Union. Photo: Mimi Plumb. Caption: Miriam Pawel.
Journalist Bob Barber was conducting interviews in 1975 in the fields. Tapes from his archives provide audio on the website. Plumb and Pawel also conducted their own interviews in recent years. Wendy Vissar finessed the workers’ stories into a digital form.
“Celestino, Ricardo, Rosa and Chuy often included me in their daily rounds, from the fields and camps to Maria’s kitchen table,” writes Plumb. “The UFW field offices were a hub of activity, of nightly meetings, and frequent visits from the union president, Cesar Chavez.”
Farmworkers listen to Ricardo Villalpando, who worked tirelessly to persuade others that supporting the UFW was the path to a better life. He went wherever he had to in order to talk to workers in small groups—buses, the fields, labor camps, apartments. Photo: Mimi Plumb. Caption: Miriam Pawel.
‘With the Virgen of Guadalupe Leading the Way’. Every day, Chavez walked between ten and twenty miles. On July 28, the marchers reached San Lucas, where Chavez held the first evening rally in the Salinas Valley, in a small wooded grove on a makeshift stage. The next morning, the marchers set off again, heading for King City. Photo: Mimi Plumb. Caption: Miriam Pawel.
“On June 5th, 1975, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (CALRA) became law,” explains Plumb. “In July and August of 1975, Chavez led a 1,000 mile march, to help bring attention to the landmark statute recognizing the right of farmworkers to vote for union representation. The first farmworker election was held on September 5th, 1975 with a vote of 15-0 for the UFW.”
What an incredible project.
It takes a while to meander through the history and the people involved in the movement, but it’s a rewarding wander.
Photo: Mimi Plumb.
Photo: Mimi Plumb.
The project is ongoing. You can help identify people in Plumb’s pictures!
Connect on Facebook too.
A 1916 American Mug Shot
For anyone who thinks photography has only recently been abducted by state and corporate power for the purposes of control, think again. For anyone who thinks that high-tech-surveillance was the birth of photography being used to discipline and order humans, think again. Cyborgology recently had a great piece by Liam French lecturer in the Journalism and Media Department at the University of St. Mark & St. John, about the historical connects between image-making and criminal justice. French writes:
The relationship between visual technologies and the criminal justice system can be traced back to the emergence of photography and the invention of the camera as a tool for documenting ‘reality’ in the nineteenth century. The camera was widely believed, even more so than today, to be able to objectively and truthfully record social reality. A photograph was perceived to be like a window on the world – a mechanically produced, impartial and literal representation of the real world.
One such photographic taxonomy was produced by the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso who drew ink portraits depicting ‘criminal types’. Lombroso’s work is an exemplary case of the rise of positivist criminology in the nineteenth century. He argued that criminals possessed more ‘atavistic’ features and shared more characteristics with our evolutionary ancestors than more law-abiding citizens.
Most Wanted: Cameras, Criminal Justice and the Persistence of Vision argues that the breadth of surveilling techniques and technologies has extended to the Internet.
Still and moving ‘visual evidence’ is stored in state archives, used in courtrooms as evidence, and disseminated across almost every major media platform: from the printed press to the World Wide Web.
French references both a 2006 article about Mark Michaelson’s book and collection of mugshots and last years viral pic of Jeremy Meeks‘ mugshot to raise the idea that law enforcement photography (mugshots included) have transcended their forensic roots.
Take, for example, the posting of the police mug-shot of criminal Jeremy Meeks on Stockton Police Force Facebook page resulted in his image going viral and concluding with the offer of a quite lucrative modelling contract. What is interesting about the Jeremy Meeks mug-shot story is that once his photograph was displayed outside of the authoritative domain of the police archive and publicly circulated across different social media platforms and networks it accrued different sets of meanings (sexy, hot, good-looking) along the way despite the attempt to officially encode (or fix) the meaning (criminal, dangerous, wanted by the police) of the photograph.
Furthermore, French argues, that John Fiske’s theory that dominant power uses system to segregate and dominate apply here. Fiske says that authority will rely upon systems and “improve” them all the while facing resistance from the lesser power. Crucially, the lesser power uses the same systems to subvert and counter dominate. Sometimes the lesser power is successful and sometimes the larger power replaces old systems with new ones of greater efficiency or new tactics. In any case there is always a push and pull.
Booking photo of Jeremy Meeks, 30. (June 18, 2014). Credit: Stockton Police Department
So in the case of mugshots, there has always been inherent control attached to state-dominate manufacture and exchange of mugshots. Until social media found a way to interrupt that exchange.
Even Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s mugshot of the day website and the countless mugshot magazines like Busted were examples of larger authorities using the mugshot to their own ends. Arpaio’s use served not the general fraternity of law enforcement but his own ego. Busted wanted to bend the use of mugshots to its own profitable ends but interestingly did so without inconveniencing the state’s power; to the contrary dollar-mugshot magazines enhance the states criminalisation of individuals.
Fiske’s theory was formulated in the late 1980s and so pre-dates the emergence of web 2.0 and social media but his model of culture (and popular culture) does have a resonance with the ways in which social media tools and platforms further open up the terrain of culture for struggles over meaning, semiotic productivity and popular resistance. Imposing official (or dominant) meanings is now much more difficult because there are so many opportunities for contestation.
It would be naïve to cite the Jeremy Meeks example as some kind of paradigm changing moment or as the empowerment of the masses but it does offer an insight into the ways in which the potential for popular resistance is always possible and can surface in the most unlikely of places.
From dusty archives, to venerable vernacular objects, to art-world comedy-fetish, to online consumable, we need to consider deeply our relationship to mugshots. And to the criminal justice systems from which they emerge. Especially as one week we’re approaching them as shallow entertainment and the next we’re demanding a right to them in order to confirm or dispel controversy and conspiracy surrounding in-custody death.
Read French’s full piece Most Wanted: Cameras, Criminal Justice and the Persistence of Vision here